Lead Story West Edition

Little libraries offer free books for readers of all ages

LOS ANGELES — A phenomenon with broad appeal is hop-scotching across the city lifting grins onto the sourpuss faces of busy, unsuspecting neighbors and passers-by.

People of all ages and persuasion are providing free books to the public, stuffed inside of miniature castles and school buses, mounted on poles they have planted in their yards.

The purveyors of good reads follow the burgeoning Little Free Library movement, co-founded in 2009 by Todd Bol to honor the memory of his mother.

Since then, 40,000 little libraries have sprung up in 70 countries.

“In its basic form, a Little Library is a box full of books … ‘a take a book, return a book’ gathering place where neighbors can share their favorite literature and stories,” Bol said.

Los Angeles has opened its doors to the “boxes of books” at Hoover Recreational Center and Rampart, 77th Street, Southeast, Olympic, and Wilshire Traffic police stations, among others.

Jean Chadwick, co-founder and executive director of The Literacy Club, headquartered in Valley Glen, said the charity had “built and placed over 40 … libraries, including all of those inside the LAPD stations. We’ve seen firsthand the positive impact … on communities.”

One grantee reported: “I live on a lovely, tree-lined street where many people walk their dogs … for exercise … it is a great location for a Little Library. I ordered a library built by the Amish and made from red barn wood. It reminds me of my grandfather’s red barn in Iowa where I loved to play as a child.  The most fun is being able to meet so many new people who enjoy the library as much as I do.”

Since becoming an aficionado three years ago, West Adams resident Debra Varnado has “researched or photographed the miniatures located in or near Leimert Park, Windsor Hills, Historic South Central, Watts, Exposition Park, Mid City, Westlake, Silver Lake, Larchmont Village, and in Inglewood and Paramount.”

“They’re in coffeehouses, hospitals, housing projects and recreational centers,” Varnado said. “More and more of them are popping up south of the Santa Monica Freeway, and it doesn’t take a pot of gold.”

In her West Adams neighborhood, Fabica, the Little Free Library of the Avenues, was born on President’s Day Weekend, a partnership between the Fifth Avenue Block Club and the Iglesia Cristiana Antioquia.

“We held a ‘library-raising’ fund drive and later sold lemonade and cookies on the sidewalk in front of Fabica. We’ve chalked up enough to almost pay for an inexpensive, pre-fabricated little library,” Varnado, the Block Club president and library steward, said.

“Fabica’s in a choice, if unlikely location — the recessed area of the church’s fence where the dumpster used to sit.”

“We have a lot of foot traffic … joggers and strollers, dog-walkers, and churchgoers headed to houses of worship on West Adams,” Varnado added. “People can see her from three directions. We want to serve the entire small, compact West Adams Avenues community and beyond.”

On a recent Friday, the Iglesia’s caretaker, Carlos Salinas, paused at the bookcase, a drill in one hand and cable ties in the other.

“This space was empty for 25 years,” he said. “Neighbors used to put their garbage in the [church’s] bin.”

“Our partnership rescued the space from blight and neglect. Trash tends to collect there,” Varnado said.

When asked what difference Fabica will make, Varnado laughed.  

“They’re very seductive. Some people love them so much; they take books by the dozen to stock their shelves.  You don’t need a library card and there are no late penalties. We’re positioned to put books in kids’ hands and homes to help build and sustain their curiosity. We want to encourage parents to read to their children and it won’t cost a trillion dollars. More kids might stay in school.”

In July, 100 children, from kindergarten to eighth graders, trekked through the neighborhood of 100-year-old homes to pluck books from Fabica’s shelves.

“The kids really enjoyed it. It was an excellent addition to our summer programming,” Walidah Williams, director of the city’s South Seas House on 24th Street and Arlington Avenue, said. “They participated in the [L.A. Public] Library’s Summer Reading Program and I think this … allowed them to stay on track.”

Williams says she wants to discuss “making [Fabica field trips] … a permanent part of the Camp Quest programming.”

Varnado said she welcomed the opportunity to make a lasting contribution.

“We’re on track to provide 900 to 1,000 books by the end of the year to kids living in the Avenues and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of them attended the Quest program.”

“I hope the project has established a foothold. Our Neighborhood Council — the United Neighborhoods —pitched in. It loaned us their tent to protect the kids from the sun. That helped make the children more comfortable as they sat reading on the sidewalk and parkway,” Varnado added.

“But we need more boots on the ground — for neighbors to get involved beyond donating books and money — which we deeply needed and appreciated. We’re like many communities: neighbors are reluctant to engage because of work and family obligations, fatigue, disinterest or dislike of each other. We’re facing profound indifference here.

“It is far-fetched to see Fabica as a ‘community center,’ but I think it is doable. The name Fabica means ‘sawmill’ in Italian and ‘worth’ in Hausa. If Fabica can hew a stronger bond between us, it’s worth the effort.”