The story behind those charming, doll-house sized little free libraries

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2013 - 1:38 PM

Little Free Library started out as a way for Todd Bol to honor his mother. Now, with thousands around the world, Bol is looking toward a broader mission.

“Do you remember your first kiss?”

Todd Bol is serious.

You’d swear you’d been talking about Little Free Library, his idea for tiny houses filled with books that are popping up in front yards all over the place. Actually, all over the world — which prompted a question about whether he’d ever imagined such a response.

He’s waiting for an answer, so you allow as how, yeah, you do remember, which delights him no end.

“You remember how your lips tingled?” he continued. “And how you didn’t know where this was going to go? And were amazed by it?”

That, he said, is how he remembers people approaching one of the first libraries he built in 2009 for a garage sale in Hudson, Wis. People cooed over it like a puppy, he said. There was something magical in the air. He knew he needed to build more. Whether they led to a fling or true love, well, he’d find out.

Today, barely four years later, there are more than 12,000 Little Free Libraries around the world. There are libraries in Ukraine, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Brazil. Also Chanhassen, Hackensack and International Falls. At this rate, 70,000 could be up by 2016.

“Take a book, return a book,” is the guiding premise. Remember, we’re talking about books, a literary form whose demise has been determinedly predicted for quite some time.

“Have you ever tried to hug your Kindle?” Bol asks, again waiting for an answer. Not that he’s against digital tablets. In fact, he credits the success of Little Free Library to the social media of Skype, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail.

“People say, ‘You guys are the last bastion of the book,’ but I there’s an equilibrium that’s taking place,” he said. Kindles will do fine because they’re amazing ways to carry a library with you. But as a consequence, he thinks, “people will cherish actual books even more.”

As with seemingly everything in Todd Bol’s world, it’s win-win.

In tribute to his mother

But first, there was loss.

June Bol was the sort of mom who made her son’s friends always feel welcome.

“If within 10 minutes, you didn’t feel comfortable enough to open the refrigerator and make a sandwich, something was wrong,” Bol said. When she died, he gave everyone a necklace of a dancing figure inscribed with “June A. Bol, 1927 — .”

“There’s an Indian saying that says nobody really dies until all they’ve touched are gone,” he said, explaining the lack of a second date. “But you can’t believe they’re gone. You reach for the phone — you start dialing the phone — and then you remember.”

Because there always was some neighborhood kid at their kitchen table in Stillwater getting some tutoring help, Bol decided to honor his mom with something bookish, and so a small red schoolhouse filled with her books appeared on the lawn. “It was a spiritual gesture,” he said.

Take a book, return a book.

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