Lawns and Literacy: Little Free Libraries

Little Free Libraries are cropping up in front of homes throughout the Garden State.

Branching Out: Bonnie Benkard tends the library in front of her West Windsor home.
Photo by Ted Axelrod.

In a West Windsor front yard, a brightly colored box nestles in the crook of a large tree. Resembling a birdhouse, only bigger, this box is a Little Free Library—one of more than 60 such outposts of literacy in the Garden State.

“I think of our library as something of a treasure box waiting to be discovered by unsuspecting pedestrians and drivers,” says homeowner and library steward Bonnie Benkard.

The first Little Free Library (LFL) appeared in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin, when Todd Bol built a miniature one-room schoolhouse, filled it with books and mounted it on a post in his front yard in honor of his late mother, a teacher. Neighbors loved it. Inspired by their reaction, Bol and a partner launched a nonprofit to spread the little box’s simple, charming, “take-a-book, leave-a-book” message. He estimates there are now more than 20,000 LFLs in 72 countries.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are delighted to bring their neighborhoods back via Little Free Libraries,” says the founder. “We’ve had people tell us, ‘I bought a house in this neighborhood because it had a Little Free Library.’”

Benkard, a school librarian, was enamored with several LFLs she saw on a visit to Wisconsin. For her birthday, her husband built her a little library. “He gave it to me, unpainted, just before Hurricane Sandy hit. I spent the days while school was closed painting and sealing it,” she says.

LFLs can be found in front of homes throughout the state, but also at the Christina Seix Academy in Trenton, the Boonton Township athletic fields, the community center in Asbury Park and outside of apartment buildings in Jersey City, Metuchen and Whitesboro.

The waterproof, wooden structures are as individual as the communities they serve. Some stewards build and decorate their mini-libraries, while others purchase ready-made designs from Craftsman Jody Williams of Sergeantsville based the village’s LFL on the carriage shed that once stood beside the municipal building where the little library is located. The artwork on Asbury Park’s first LFL was created by local tattoo artists.

In Princeton, the Bunting Family LFL is a red phone box, reflecting their British roots. In Summit, Mattie Azurmendi and her two sons decorated an oversized white mailbox with storybook characters. The Linwood LFL was a post-Sandy community project. A grant from the Reading Council of Southern New Jersey and Usborne Books provided the seed money to stock the box.

Last November, the nonprofit Newark Downtown District (NDD) installed the first of several LFLs planned for the city on the edge of Washington Park. The library is a triplex—three boxes under a single roof. To date, 2,600 books—all donated through collection bins and by city employees—have found their way into residents’ hands.

“Here, most people don’t bring the books back,” says NDD project manager Steve Hillyer, “but from our perspective, as long as we are providing access to something residents don’t have, then it’s successful.”

In Bradley Beach, the public library hosts two boardwalk LFLs. “We like the community that has grown up around providing books and caring for our little libraries,” says director Janet Torsney. “Having books available for free at a place where people are relaxing is a wonderful way to get people reading.”

Freelance writer Susan Cousins Breen wishes her hometown of Mickleton had a Little Free Library.

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