Three years ago, Ed Reynolds read an article about the Little Free Library book exchange, a movement to build small shelters for books in neighborhoods. He decided to build one for his mother.
May Reynolds loved to read all her life and continued to read after being diagnosed with dementia in her 70s.
Ed Reynolds recruited a neighbor, Bob Curry, and the men constructed “May’s Little Library” in the Hobcaw Point subdivision in Mount Pleasant and registered it with the Wisconsin-based nonprofit, Little Free Library.
“My mom often would sit on the front porch and watch people come up to the library and pick out books,” says Reynolds.
The library extended her joy of reading in a different way, until May Reynolds died from a stroke at age 79 last Christmas.
While the Little Free Library movement is relatively new, it has spread across the nation and the world.
“Social entrepreneur” Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, created the nonprofit in 2009 with the purpose of promoting literacy and the love of reading by encouraging people to build the small enclosures to provide for free book exchanges.
As of June, the nonprofit says there are 40,000 registered libraries containing an estimated 16 million books in all 50 states and more than 70 countries. In the United States, California leads with 2,100 registered tiny libraries and Hawaii has the least with 16 (as of October 2015).
The nonprofit’s spokeswoman Margret Aldrich says the momentum continues.
“Little Free Libraries have struck a chord internationally, because they celebrate reading, community and creativity. It’s truly become a global movement that welcomes everyone to be a part of it, whether you have a Little Free Library of your own or frequent one in your neighborhood,” says Aldrich, who is one of only 12 staffers at Little Free Library.
The nonprofit doesn’t appear to be in it for the money.
The Little Free Library website encourages people to build their own library enclosures using reclaimed materials, though it offers standardized structures for up to $500. The one-time registration fee is $42.45 and includes a charter sign, steward’s guide and a listing online. To get that and a custom sign costs a bit more, $76.95.
Over the past seven years, Aldrich says they have been amazed at some of the creative designs.
“We’ve seen Little Free Libraries that look like Volkswagen buses, robots, rocket ships, Victorian mansions, log cabins, pigs, pianos and everything in between.”
A search of the Little Free Library found about two dozen registered enclosures across the Charleston metro area.
Most are on the edges of private residences and public roadways, but some are in other locations. Grace Episcopal Church on Wentworth Street has one in the corner of a small parking lot.
And because some homeowners associations have strict rules, people have had to be extra diplomatic and creative with installing a tiny library.
After Bob Harris, who retired as an education researcher, moved from northern Virginia to Charleston National subdivision in Mount Pleasant, he wanted to do something for the neighborhood. He approached the HOA about a Little Free Library.
“They liked the idea, but didn’t want it in my yard,” says Harris. “They suggested I call the gentleman who owns the pool and community center about putting one there.”
He got the approval, gathered up reclaimed materials and a few neighbors to help build it in a somewhat obscure location between the pool and playground. (A stranger later made a sign pointing people in the direction of the enclosure.)
“One of them even painted it ‘Charleston National green,’” says Harris, who continually monitors its use and helps coordinate book donations to keep it stocked with both adult and children’s books.
The Little Free Library initiative is a bit revolutionary, especially given the popularity of tablets and e-readers and the fact that this grassroots “amenity” is virtually unprecedented.
And it appears more are coming.
Jennifer Mathis, owner of Blue Bowl Interiors, says Little Free Libraries have been on her radar for years and that she loves the concept. She is currently looking into the possibility of repurposing an old newspaper box.
“Any way to spread a little good cheer in a community, all the better,” says Mathis, who lives in Oak Terrace Preserve and knows of three Little Free Libraries in North Charleston’s Park Circle community.
“I think reading is a pretty cool thing. If there is a pretty easy way to share a good book, even cooler. We also have friends that are both (College of Charleston) English professors and they have one in their front yard as well.”
Of nearly a dozen local people queried about their motivation for installing a Little Free Library, one theme emerged. They have education backgrounds.
Hanahan Elementary speech pathologist Carson Walker says after moving into their new home in the Otranto neighborhood, her 4-year-old daughter Camryn kept “praying for a library in her house.” Walker told a colleague who works in the school library about it and she suggested looking into putting up a Little Free Library.
Walker’s husband is a painter and the couple decided to build one. They raised $300 on GoFundMe.com and put it up in their yard, about three feet from the street.
“We’ve gotten to know neighbors because they stopped to look through the books,” says Walker, adding that, like some Little Free Library “stewards,” have a guest book for people to sign and make comments.
Somewhat surprisingly, the local stewards say they have not experienced problems with moisture from humidity or wind-blown rain. Most build them well and say the book turnover keeps them relatively fresh.
Hal Currey, former associate dean at MUSC’s College of Medicine, and former librarian Peggy Schachte decided to install a Little Free Library in their yard, which happens to be near a busy beach access on Sullivan’s Island. They opened their “Bunker Hill Little Free Library,” named because their house sits on a hill that the Army built as a lookout and fire command for Fort Moultrie, on Nov. 16, 2014.
“Our library is well built and weatherproofed, so we have not had any issues with books deteriorating in the heat or humidity, even in last October’s record rainfall,” says Currey, adding that they periodically empty and clean the enclosure because “this (is) the land of the palmetto bug.”
Guang Ming Whitley, a writer and “chief operating officer of the Whitley family” (four kids under 8), and her husband moved into a house off of Center Street in Mount Pleasant and almost immediately installed a Little Free Library.
They ordered their enclosure from the nonprofit’s website for about $400, including shipping, because they wanted it to be weather-proof. Her husband followed the website’s online instructions and build it himself.
But then they sold the house and moved into a new home with an HOA, but it required insurance, board approval and vote by the entire neighborhood on whether to allow it.
The Whitleys initially thought that the new owner of their old house, Dr. Lesly Davidson, didn’t want to keep their Little Free Library.
“On the day of closing, when I went by the house to get our hanging baskets, she (Davidson) was there and we chatted and I learned she was sad to hear we were taking the library and thought it was cute,” recalls Whitley, who was relieved that she wanted to keep it.
“We think Center Street is such a good place for it ... Lots of people use it.”