NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — A Little Free Neighborly Spirit

“Curiosity” could be Julie Holgate’s middle name. So when she noticed intriguing little boxes popping up on boulevards around the Twin Cities four years ago, of course she had to take a closer look.

“My brother was looking at houses,” she recalls. “We’d see one of those little boxes on nearly every street. Sometimes a bunch of kids were clustered around them. Finally I shouted, ‘Stop the car,’ and jumped out to take a look.”

That’s how the exuberant resident of Moorhead’s Historic Comstock Neighborhood discovered a trend that has since taken firm root around the community. Her Little Free Library — Moorhead’s first — opened its doors on the Fourth of July in 2012.

Yes, doors — cabinet doors. Fashioned from a salvaged kitchen unit she bought for $10 at Restore, Julie’s tiny front-yard lending library was stocked with children’s books she scavenged from thrift stores for a few coins apiece.

The principle was simple enough: Book-hungry neighborhood kids and their parents could browse and borrow one that caught their fancy. “Take a book, return a book,” she explains. “It’s really about as simple as it gets.”

Since then, Little Free Libraries have been showing up here and there all over Moorhead and Fargo. Some, like Julie’s, focus on books that appeal to young readers: “I love the idea of getting kids reading … really, people of all ages.”

Then she added an adult section over in one corner. “I don’t have a Kindle, so I’ve always had books all over the house. I’d read them once or twice — and then what?” she says. “This is so perfect. I love to read books, and share books, and talk about books … and this has been a connection to all the familiar-looking strangers I’ve seen around.”

Since 2010, the little boxes of books have become a national sensation. Today, some 40,000 are registered with a national coordinating site. Six are registered in Moorhead, 24 in Fargo and two in West Fargo. Grand Forks has another 10 on the official site; Bismarck, 12; Minot, 3; and one each from Grafton to Williston to Bowman to Wyndmere and 12 more towns in between. (To find a location, go to http://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap.)

Julie’s, however, is different from the rest. This fall, along with books to borrow, the KVLY-TV news producer is also stocking fresh notebooks, gluesticks and boxes of color crayons for her young patrons to take as they please.

“When I was a little kid, back-to-school shopping was right up there with Christmas,” she says. “Walking through Target this month, I really felt that old urge to buy a fresh, new box of crayons. I don’t have children of my own, so I thought, ‘I know! I’ll put them out in the Little Free Library.’”

No one had yet touched the tempting free supplies at the time we talked. She was thinking of posting a sign explaining that these aren’t more borrowers — they’re keepers.

“I live in a very mixed neighborhood — retired people, single working people like me, families with kids, college students,” she says of the area surrounding the house she’s owned for more than 20 years. “You half-recognize the people you see on the street, but you don’t really get to know them. What I like most about the Little Library is how it builds a sense of community.

“I’ve had chats with lots of those familiar strangers. I recognize some of my ‘regulars’ — the young mother walking with her children, the bike-rider man with a little boy peddling his trike, the woman around the corner who read every title we had while she was laid up after an accident. I’ve had a blast looking out the window and see someone putting a book back and selecting another.”

Some of her friends and neighbors have dropped off bags of books on her porch. After hearing about her new school supplies give-away, others have offered to help replenish it.

Neighbor Skip Wood has been especially helpful, she says, both in crafting her first Little Library and then repairing it after several tragedies. “We’ve been trashed and vandalized three times,” she reports. “Skip and I could patch it and get it back on its feet after the first two incidents.”

The third time, though, nearly did her in. The repurposed cabinet that had sheltered her library from Minnesota weather for three years had been smashed and damaged beyond any hope of repair. “My heart really sank. It’s so disappointing,” she reports. “What’s going on with someone who’d shove over a little kids’ library?”

She hauled the wreck onto her porch and was shaking her head when two of her regulars — a mother and a little girl — stopped to see. “I was telling them what had happened,” she recalls. “I was just about to say, ‘That’s it. I’ve had it.’

“Then I looked at the expression on the little girl’s face. She was so sad. She had tears in her eyes. And what came out of my mouth? ‘But don’t worry — we’re going to build a new one.’”

The new one, fashioned (with Skip’s help) from a cedar planter propped on its side, has sturdy shelves and doors with solid latches. It’s back in action now, refilled with a selection of books to share. And Julie has new ideas.

“I’ve been hearing about people setting up Little Free Pantries based on the same idea,” she muses, also citing Moorhead’s Little Free Gardens and front-yard “help yourself” tables. “I’m really interested in seeing how the pantry idea works out.”

And in the meantime, the Little Free Library between Minnesota State University Moorhead and Prairie Home Cemetery keeps on inspiring new readers, new conversations and new friendships — one more strand that knits her neighborhood together.

“I love Teddy Roosevelt’s quote,” she says. “‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’

“You don’t have to look too far to find someone who needs a hand up, or even a handout,” Julie adds. “My mom and dad raised us to look around for someone who can use a little boost. After all, you never know when that person could turn out to be you.”

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — A Little Free Neighborly Spirit”

  • Larry Gauper August 26, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Another interesting and well-written piece in the Nancy Edmonds Hanson tradition.

    I walk by one of those “little libraries” in south Fargo, not far from our home. I think these are unselfish, useful tools that inspire people, particularly younger folks, to read. Unlike the fast action, over-loaded “hot” graphics of today’s movies, reading a book develops concentration and imagination. It’s invaluable in career development. I’ve told college students: “Your library card is more valuable than your Visa.” And it is. Books will get you where you want to go; you just have to read them and follow what they advise. Today, of course, my print library at home simply stopped when I developed my passion for the Kindle. There are lots of free books available for e-readers, but that’s another topic.

    Regarding school supplies and a “fresh box of crayons.” I still love August because of all the bargains in spiral notebooks, pens, inexpensive packages of pencils, and those “Pink Pearl” erasers. I have a bit of a fetish for walking through Office Depot and school supply displays at Walmart or Target and looking at all the choices kids have today.


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