Small wonders | March 22, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- March 22, 2013

Small wonders

People are using books, front yards to foster neighborliness

by Jocelyn Dong

To check out a copy of the new bestselling memoir "Wild" from the Palo Alto Library, one has to get in line. On Wednesday, there were 26 holds placed on it.

But in front of Joe and Bonnie Brock's house in the Midtown neighborhood, the Cheryl Strayed book sat in a Little Free Library, available for the taking.

A block away, "The Snowy Day" and "The Wonderful World of Peanuts" were shelved in another tiny, outdoor library, waiting for children to whisk them away in their backpacks.

Little Free Libraries — imagine giant bird houses — are owned and operated by the residents who've erected them. Full of a few dozen to a hundred or more books, depending on each library's size, they are part of a grassroots movement in sharing. Generally, they're placed in people's front yards.

Passersby are welcome to borrow a book and return it — or just take it and bring a different one back.

"It's a great way to meet your neighbors, especially in Palo Alto where there's a lot of biking and walking," said Anne Horgan, administrative director of the Friends Nursery School on Colorado Avenue, where a library-in-a-box is stocked with children's books. "If you're walking your dog, you can go to a Little Free Library and pick something up."

The movement started in Wisconsin in 2009, with the aim of turning books into social ice breakers and conversation pieces — threads woven into the fabric of neighborhood life. Now, official Little Free Libraries are located in places as far flung as Lithuania and the Republic of Congo.

Palo Alto's first one was built last spring by Joe Brock, who heard about the concept on NPR. A hobbyist woodworker who's made guitars and furniture, he constructed the library from wood left over from other projects.

"It was used immediately," he said, recalling how neighbors had seen him working on the library for months and anticipated its completion. Books that his wife put in were quickly borrowed, and children on his block started bringing their own used books back — tales of the Berenstain Bears and stories by Dr. Seuss.

The Friends Nursery School's library, which Brock also built, elicited the same reaction when it debuted last October. After its first week, all the books were gone.

The next week, some of the original books came back, along with some different ones, Horgan said.

She credits the popularity to the location: The library lies along a designated path to Ohlone Elementary School, and about 200 children walk by each day.

Still, in a city with no lack of access to books, "I was surprised kids have used it so much," Horgan said.

On Wednesday, she thumbed through the ever-evolving collection.

"I would think there's 45, maybe," she said, counting the assortment, which now includes the board book "Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb" and the humorous "Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that type."

Not only are there children's books, but someone left a CD of "Treasure Island" and two parenting books as well.

"It takes on a life of its own because you never know who is going to use it," Horgan said.

In between the installations of Brock's two libraries, another local family heard about the book project, this time from an article in a University of Wisconsin alumni newsletter. John Oghalai immediately thought it would be a good project to work on with his elder son.

Their redwood library stands in front of their home on a steep, winding road in Stanford, a popular route for university students running to the Dish.

"I hope that it's the kind of place where people will walk up to" and find a reward, he said. "They deserve it after getting up the hills."

As if on cue Wednesday, a young woman jogged by.

"It's so cool!" she called out.

Oghalai laughed.

"The community-building is the key thing for us," he said.

Children's books and romance novels have been the most popular. Just last weekend, a woman who lives several houses away stopped by and was happy to find a dinosaur book for her 3-year-old grandchild, he said.

With son Kevin a voracious reader, Oghalai said, there are always old books available to fill up the library.

"It's just a nice way to share," Oghalai said.

Brock has found that in his close-knit neighborhood, the library encourages people to share space as well as books.

"It's a common meeting area," he said.

The bench he's placed in the yard next to the library has further blurred the line between private and public space.

"Many times I come home from work, and there's a person I don't know sitting on the bench, perusing the books," Brock said. "That's the fun part for me.

"On weekends, I've come out in the afternoon, and there's been a gentleman sitting on the bench, reading. I say 'Hi,' and go about my business. It's very natural."

Although the Brocks initially filled the library, it's self-sustaining now, stocked with books from the public. That's also part of the fun, Brock said. Half the time, he sees people leave a book one day and then check up on it the next, hopeful it appealed to someone enough to have been snatched up.

Brock thinks people enjoy the library for two reasons: It's convenient, and there's a "book club" element to it. Neighbors don't have to drive to get there. And people end up having lively conversations about the books in the library.

Both Oghalai and Horgan say they hope to do more with their libraries, such as putting in stepping stools so even the tiniest kids can reach the books and adding benches or a boulder for people to sit on.

So far, the three Little Free Libraries in Palo Alto and Stanford, and one in Menlo Park, are the only ones on the Midpeninsula. But that could change if the pace of building and registering Little Free Libraries nationally is any indication. Brock's first library was registered as No. 1487 last spring, and the second one, installed a mere six months later at the preschool, became No. 5006.

What's more, Brock said, he's received requests from friends to build more.

Editor Jocelyn Dong can be emailed at


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