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Culture

How I Built a Little Free Library During the Pandemic

In a time of isolation from friends and family, the project was an ideal way to make new connections with those geographically closest to us—our neighbors.

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In this series, called “The Pandemic Made Me Do It,” we ask our staffers, our freelance writers, and everyday Coloradans to tell us how—during what can sometimes feel like an inspiration-sucking global meltdown—they found the motivation and the tools to try something new, brush up on an old skill, or begin laying the groundwork for a long-term project. Have a pitch for a future story? Email submissions to spencer@5280.com

Procrastinator Profile
Name: Jessica LaRusso
Age: 34
Day job: Managing editor, 5280
Says she wanted to: Build a Little Free Library for her front yard

The Backstory

As a kid, I was known to take dozens of books on my family’s annual weeklong beach vacation and was a fixture at my local library, luckily just a short walk from my house. I kept up on classic series like The Boxcar Children, spent the summer before sixth grade devouring Expanded Universe Star Wars stories, and cherished novels, like Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, that introduced me to people and cultures I had zero exposure to in my rural northern Indiana town. I dreamed of becoming a librarian someday. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I was very, very cool.) While that didn’t end up being my career path, as an editor at 5280, I still basically read for a living, which was good enough—until I spotted my first Little Free Library while walking around the Baker neighborhood where my husband and I were renting a rowhome a handful of years ago. I was immediately charmed by the tiny, sidewalk-adjacent boxes, of which there are now more than 100,000 registered around the world. The nonprofit Little Free Library’s mission is to increase access to free reading materials (“Take a Book, Share a Book”), particularly for kids living in areas where there isn’t a traditional library nearby. I resolved to install one as soon as we owned a house of our own.

Quarantine Made Me My Husband Do It

In April 2020, nearly three years into home ownership in a quiet Arvada neighborhood, I still hadn’t gotten around to becoming a Little Free Library steward—or, rather, convincing my husband to push the construction of one to the top of our to-do list. With social engagements on hold due to COVID-19 and Lowe’s the most happening place in town outside the toilet paper aisle at Costco, however, I decided the moment was ripe to campaign for the project. We’d been landscaping the front corner of our lot, and I’d reserved the prime real estate for my dream library: a mid-mod design with a slanted living roof I’d found on a DIY website that would go perfectly with our 1961 ranch. (Note: Don’t tell my husband, but you can buy pre-built libraries and kits that start at $150, not including the post.) I ordered our official Little Free Library charter sign (from $40) and we went to work following the step-by-step instructions, sure we’d be done the very same Saturday we started. Multiple return trips to Lowe’s, a few swear words, and about a week later, we finally finished. (As it turns out, angling the roof increases the difficulty level significantly, which became evident from the way the tutorial started fudging measurements toward the end.) We screwed in the sign—charter #99633, proudly plotted on Little Free Library’s world map—and stocked it with some books we had on hand, a jar full of dog treats, and a couple of rolls of TP. I was finally a librarian, and as such I felt justified in unabashedly peering out of our windows to watch for sticky-fingered kids and exercising neighbors discovering their new community treasure trove.

Little Free Library
The author’s Little Free Library, awaiting visitors this past spring. Photo by Jessica LaRusso

The Result

To my surprise, no one ever took the TP, and I soon removed it to make way for the picture books, trashy romance novels, and New York Times bestsellers people began adding. We loved checking to see what went quickly (5280 back issues, our spare Lord of the Rings trilogy) and what stuck around (to this journalist’s dismay, no one was interested in The Secret Man, Bob Woodward’s account of his relationship with Watergate’s Deep Throat). The smash hit of those early months of quarantine was puzzles; a few cycled in and out for a while, and one just reappeared this week. For us, though, the best thing to come out of our Little Free Library has been the across-the-lawn conversations it’s spurred with our neighbors, particularly in the spring, when we were especially cut off from in-person social interactions. We found out that a family around the corner keeps bees after they commented on our library’s bee-shaped door handle and the surrounding pollinator-friendly plants; their kids now periodically leave us brightly painted rocks to add to the landscaping. We learned the names of people’s dogs who start wagging their tails half a block away in anticipation of stopping at our corner for a snack. We’ve talked about having post-pandemic beers with the parents of a toddler down the street who has also developed a taste for the dog treats, per her mom’s confession (they’re organic, mostly peanut butter and banana…so probably fine?).

As the COVID-19 curve has flattened and people have been able to go farther from their homes for recreation and entertainment, the action in our tiny library has slowed. I still relish going out to check on our stock—sometimes arranging by genre, other times by size or color—and I get a particular joy from seeing youth and young adult titles get picked up. The fact that the selection is temporary is a large part of the fun, but I hope the connections the library has helped us make are permanent.

ELECTION 2020

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