Little Big Idea: Little Free Library Expands in Fayetteville

Jeanie Hill stands next to her Little Free Library at 422 W. Cleburn St. near Wilson Park in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE—Several years ago, Todd Bol would have never dreamed he would become a part of an international phenomenon. Speaking to a roomful of attendees at the Walker Community Room in Fayetteville Public Library, on December 5, Bol told his story on how a simple tribute had made him the head of a global nonprofit organization called the Little Free Library.

It started on the fall of 2009, when Boll, a former international business consultant, assembled a miniaturized one-room schoolhouse on a post outside his home on Hudson, Wis., in which he crammed it with books and invited his neighbors to borrow them. “It was a simple tribute to my mother, who is a teacher and bibliophile,” he said.

Unbeknownst to him, the neighbors soon began popping around with frequent regularity that his lawn became a gathering spot. They clearly loved the idea.

When Bol told one of his friends in Madison about his handcrafted library box, the latter followed suit, garnering a similar response from his neighbors as well. Bol’s incidental invention got increasingly popular that handcrafted libraries began cropping up around Wisconsin’s capital.

Over the course of three years, Bol and his Madison friend, Rick Brooks, along with enthusiastic volunteers, started to work in “a funky workshop” outside Hudson, a riverside community of 12,000 about 20 miles east of downtown St. Paul, Minn. There, They constructed boxes made of wood and in a variety of styles and shapes, ranging from basic to a miniature British-style phone booth, and then sold them on the group’s website, which also offers plans for self-assembly.

“The essential traits are that they are eye-catching and protect the books from the weather,” Bol said. “The concept is ‘to take a book, return a book.’”

As demand for the libraries rose, Bol and Brooks needed to find a way to boost the production process more efficiently. They contacted Henry Miller, an Amish carpenter living in western Wisconsin, who thanks to his easy access to wood from old local barns, became the primary builder of the libraries sold in the organization’s website.

To date, the organization has sent out “4000 official library signs” in response to requests, and “about 800 libraries have been registered through the Little Free Library program,” said Bol.

Joining Bol in his presentation at the Walker Community Room was Charlie Alison, the first person to build a little free library box in Arkansas, which he placed it on his front yard at the Washington Willow neighborhood in Fayetteville.

“We just took scraps from around here and built a free little library,” said Charlie. “We have mysteries, we have classics, and we have some magazines too. It’s a broad selection.”

“It’s an excellent combination,” said Eden Reif, a mother of two who frequently visits Charlie’s little free library. “You get to see the neighborhood . . . take a walk and discover something you didn’t know you needed.”

So far, there are 10 little library boxes throughout Arkansas, and there are plans to build more starting from Fayetteville. Besides Charlie’s box, there is one located at 422 W. Cleburn St. near Wilson Park, whose owner is Jeanie Hill.

The Little Free Library program is currently available in “49 states and in 32 countries, including China, Australia, Canada, and Mexico.”

To help keep the libraries affordable—or free, when necessary—Bol and Brooks established the Give It Forward Team, or GIFT, which is supported by tax-deductible contributions and sponsors.

“We are working very hard to get close to making it financially viable, but it will be a while,” Bol said. “What’s encouraging is that every day people call us and they have the most clever, interesting and sometimes moving ideas.”

For Charlie, it was the glowing response that he had received that made him feels more “enriched” and “connected.”

“Some of the passion for it is we get to see the faces of the people who come by and look for books,” he said. “It’s like Christmas except it happens everyday that you come by.”

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