by: PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - Mitchell Castor, 10, hands a book to Jayce Helmboldt, 10, from the Helmboldt family's Little Free Library box, while brother Kyler Helmboldt, 13, looks on.An adorable little red house with a slatey-green shingled roof and glass front door could be mistaken for a starter home for Barbie and Ken, but it has a loftier purpose. The house on the corner of Wynton Drive and Coltrane Street just off Beavercreek Road in Oregon City houses books, not dolls, and is officially a Little Free Library.

It sits on a single post in the corner of Ryan and Tracey Helmboldt’s front yard, and the books inside are free for the taking. The couple found the idea online at the Little Free Library website, and were so taken with the idea that Tracey Helmboldt said, “We’ve got to do this.”

Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, co-founded the Little Free Library organization, and built the first one in 2008 in Bol’s front yard in Hudson, Wisc.

“We did it to celebrate reading in neighborhoods; people greet the library box like they are greeting a new puppy; it opens the heart,” Bol said during a telephone interview.

It was a combination of things that led the two men to the idea of the Little Free Library. First of all, Bol wanted to honor his mother, a teacher who loved books, so he dedicated his library box to her; then he wanted to slow traffic and do something good for his neighbors.

“I never built the first one thinking of a big plan; Rick and I just wanted to plant a few seeds and went from there. This is a story of neighborhoods and thousands of people” who picked up on the idea, Bol said. He and his volunteers keep track of where all the libraries are, and people can access a map online to go visit sites in their city. The LFL organization also certifies all the libraries and sends out official plaques to be posted on the boxes.

He and Brooks also came up with another goal: to build more than 2,510 libraries around the world, more than Andrew Carnegie did.

“We blew that out of the water,” Bol said, adding that there are now more than 3,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide, including boxes in all 50 states and more than 50 countries. He noted that the idea is catching fire in the Pacific Northwest and added, “Every week we are sending signs to Portland.”

Thayer Estates free library

“We are Little Free Library number 1,963,” Ryan Helmboldt said, noting that he put up the library this past June.

Already the family has noticed examples of community building, they said.

People in their Thayer Estates neighborhood have stopped by to chat with them about the library, and neighbors are taking books and bringing in new books, nearly every day.

“It’s neat for the grandparents, every time their grandkids come to visit they come over to look at the books,” Ryan Helmboldt said.

Although there are LFL kits available on the website, the Helmboldts decided to build their structure from scratch.

“It was a good project to do with all of us, because we all read, and it is interesting to see what anybody else reads,” Ryan Helmboldt said, noting that their two sons, Kyler, 13, and Jayce, 10, were involved with the painting and setting up of the bookshelves.

This summer, the Helmboldt family grabbed some books from their library, hopped in the car and visited other sites in the Portland metro area, dropping off books and leaving stickers behind, noting their location.

The Helmboldt family’s library box has a plaque declaring that their structure is a certified Little Free Library, but it is also dedicated to the memory of Shawn Marie Egli, Tracey Helmboldt’s sister, who died on March 24, 2011, from breast cancer. There is a photo of her sister inside the library box, and the family dedicated their LFL to Egli, because she loved to read.

The library box holds more than 40 books of various sizes at any one time, and popular titles include “Magic Tree House” and the “Twilight” series. Jodi Picoult books also show up regularly, Tracey Helmboldt noted.

She added that her sons made bookmarks over the summer, some with riddles and some with quotes on them.

In the coming year, the couple hopes to landscape the corner and put in an arbor, to draw neighbors to the site.

“We’d like to see more of these pop up in Oregon City,” Tracey Helmboldt said.

Her husband added, “We accept donations; people can come browse and drop off books.”

Grassroots movement has grown from humble start

In an email interview, co-founder Rick Brooks shared the story of the Little Free Library movement.

Question: How did you and Todd Bol come up with the idea for the Little Free Library? 

Answer: Todd originally built the first one in Hudson, Wisc., as a memorial to his mother. He built a model of a one-room schoolhouse, filled it with books and put it in his front yard with a sign that said “Free Books.” It literally stopped traffic, and people loved it.

Q. How did you realize it could be bigger than one little box?

A.  When I saw it the first time, I knew it could do more than just attract attention.  As co-founder of a group of independently owned local businesses in Madison, Wisc., and Dane County, Wisc., I had worked with neighborhood organizations, schools and nonprofit groups and thought the little library could serve as an excellent way for people to share interests and connect with each other. When we installed one at Absolutely Art community gallery’s backyard near a bike path in Madison, it really caught on. We were amazed by how many people saw it and remembered it, and with just a little sign that said “Take a book, return a book,” scores of volumes went through the library in the first few weeks. The Little Free Library movement was on its way after we got several requests to build them for people in Madison.            

Q. What has been the most exciting part of this whole process for you?  

A. This happens almost every day when we open our email or look on Facebook and see the stories and photos of Little Libraries all around the world. We have had thousands of messages from Little Library stewards who are grateful for the idea, quite sentimental and charmed, even, by the number of neighbors they have met since their library was installed. They marvel at the quality and diversity of the books as well as the fact that people are taking such pleasure in donating books. Those daily stories are extremely gratifying. The creativity and enthusiasm of Little Free Library patrons and stewards is infectious.  

Q. Why should people set up Little Free Library boxes in their yards?  

A. They will meet and talk with their neighbors, inspire children and adults to read more, feel good about making a contribution to the quality of community life and be able to share a wide diversity of literature. Realtors have told us that customers have decided to buy homes because they saw a Little Free Library on the block and loved the feel of the neighborhood. Some families dedicate their library to family members or pets; others celebrate poetry or a specific topic.  

They tell us they love the serendipity of never knowing what they might find in the library, and they are not overwhelmed as they might be in a huge, big-box bookstore. And for communities that have no public library or bookstore, these little guys can open up a whole new world of literature.

Q. Anything else you would like to say?  

A. The story of all this is really thousands of stories already; of good people reaching out to their neighbors and strangers all around the world as well as in their neighborhoods.  For many reasons, a simple little box of books seems to have generated relationships and shared interests that have exceeded our highest hopes already. Community groups and executives are coming together to build enough Little Libraries to reach entire towns and metropolitan areas. Hobbyists and librarians, parents and kids are having a great time building what appears to be a new American folk craft.  What they create is amazing, and sometimes quite moving.

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