Walking in an impoverished neighborhood in Portland, Maine, biking on an upscale island in Denmark, driving through a city in Sweden, the same strange sight greeted me. It also greets me every time I walk across my neighborhood park to get my mail and a copy of The Independent.
It is a small wooden box with books inside, a little free library. Anyone can leave a book that they have no more use for, and anyone can pick it up for free to read at his leisure. It is such a natural, obvious, blessed addition to our lives that it seems like it must have been around forever. But it wasn’t. It was invented by one man. He did so less than a decade ago. And last month he died. Civilization is in his debt.
On our community website, where residents trade bits of information and gossip, my neighbors mourned his passing. “How sad, but also his story is inspirational. The little free libraries are such an amazing idea,” wrote one.
“It gives you a little hope for us. A life well lived indeed,” wrote another.
The inventor of the title free library was Todd Bol, who died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 18 at the age of 62.
Working in his garage in Hudson, Wis., he made the first little free library in his garage in 2009. With a pointy roof, bright red trim and a glass door, it resembled an old-fashioned one-room school house.
His goal was to have 2,150 of them around the country, making them more numerous than the famed Carnegie Free Libraries of the previous century. Today there are 75,000 boxes exchanging millions of books in 88 countries and all 50 states, as well as a nonprofit foundation called Little Free Libraries and an international movement supporting it.
The headline on a story about Bol in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2017 described his movement as a “revolution.” It quoted him as saying, “The real key of the Little Free Libraries is people say they meet their neighbors through their libraries. It’s an extension of their front porch and this is the currency.”
Oscar Wilde wrote, “With freedom, books, flowers and the moon, who could not be happy.” The sentence is part of a poster displayed on the web page of the Little Free Library. It depicts a boy sitting on the ground, staring up at the moon and holding in his lap an open book.
“I want to see a Little Free Library on every block and a book in every hand,” Bol once said.
In an interview shortly before his death he described his libraries as part of a movement of people “fixing their neighborhood one book, one child at a time.”
I’ve just learned there’s a little free library in Willard. In our East Mountain neighborhood, we actually have two of the little boxes, one for children and the other for adults. Neighbors take turns overseeing the boxes, making sure they are neat and rotating the books. There always seems to be more books on offer than the boxes will hold, so older books are regularly replaced with newer ones. They range all the way from textbooks to romantic novels, from philosophy to poetry, from serious literature to picture books.
There always seems to be a book for everyone, no matter what his or her tastes—or needs—are.