They look like large birdhouses and act like water coolers. But the sustenance stored inside the wooden, windowed boxes is a blend of knowledge and recreation.
Little Free Libraries, the brainchild of Stillwater native Todd Bol, are popping up all over Minnesota, from tony Lowry Hill to St. Paul's rough-and-tumble East Side to placid Detroit Lakes.
Usually planted near streets and seeded with their owners' books, the libraries can hold about two dozen volumes. Working on an honor system -- a sign on the side reads "Take a Book, Leave a Book" -- the boxes tend to stay stocked with contributions from those who happen upon them and find a book or three to take home.
"It's always moving -- paperback, hardcover, kids' books. We are not having to feed much," Mary Kloehn of Minneapolis said. "We're reading a great book now that somebody put there. It's like a dynamic library in our front yard.
"We live in a neighborhood where you can spit on the next residence, but that still doesn't mean you talk to them. These people across the street stopped and talked to us for the first time ever by the library."
That's a common occurrence, according to Bol, who now lives in Hudson, Wis. He came up with the idea two years ago and started the nonprofit company Little Free Library with his friend Rick Brooks of Madison, Wis.
"What we have found is that the neighborhood starts to feel like it's theirs," Bol said. "The neighborhood starts taking care of it. People come together to talk about literacy, education -- community things that we define so well but lack so much. There is such polarity these days that this is a little common place that we're comfortable with."
Bol has enlisted several other builders, including an Amish man who uses wood from 100-year-old barns and Forest Lake residents who work with recycled sawdust. Recycling has been a theme all along: Some of Bol's first libraries came from a barn that blew down when a tornado hit Ogema, Wis.
The dimensions are "not real scientific," Bol said. "They can be no higher than 24 inches so it can fit in my station wagon. We try to make it not over 23 inches wide so it fits in a 26-inch box for UPS. Usually 15 7/8 inches deep, so we can get the best maximized cutout of a piece of plywood."
And then there's this: "If they get any bigger than that, I hurt my back carrying them."
They cost $375 to $1,000, although build-it-yourself and Pay It Forward programs can help reduce the price. Bol and Brooks also encourage neighbors to share the costs (www.startribune.com/a713). In just two years, scores of Little Free Libraries have popped up in Wisconsin, along with some in Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, British Columbia and Mexico.
A recent State Fair stint helped bring the libraries to the attention of Minnesotans. But Ruth Solie of Detroit Lakes learned about them on Facebook.
"I just clicked through and was so taken by it," Solie said. "For one thing, it's really adorable and at a height a fairly young child can reach. There are a lot of runners and walkers here, and a lot of children on the block. One of my neighbors has a day-care. They come and sit on the grass and have a little outing.
"We just had a woman who came by and saw that 'Cutting for Stone' was in there, and she was on her way to buy that for a friend. The other day some teens were going by and stopped. There was a beautiful bird guide, and they lit up and got it, and off they went.
"My impression is that no one has walked past it without stopping to look. On a summer's evening, people just kind of congregate around it."
And in winter?
"Hey, during the big snowstorms, we were the public building that was open," Bol said with a chuckle. He added that the boxes are "mostly double-walled, not that they're insulated and warm but dry and weatherproof -- and people go for walks all year long."
Literature-loving women over age 50 such as Solie are the libraries' strongest customers to date, said Bol, who finds a common thread in their motivation.
"What we often hear [about the stocked books] is, 'I'm a great reader, and they're such a part of me that I just can't sell them for 25 cents to a used-book store,'" Bol said. "'But I can give them to a friend.'"
And then there's the clutter factor, at least for many baby boomers who have amassed vast collections of books.
"It's kind of a way of getting something out of books that are sitting on my shelf that I don't particularly need anymore," Solie said, "but they're wonderful books and I'm happy to share them."
Mary and Royce Kloehn have taken it a step further. They had set aside a stack to feed their Little Free Library and still haven't gone through them all. But they noticed an occasional shortage of books for the many young readers in their neighborhood.
"We have a lot of little kids who'll come by and say, 'Look I've got a book; I've got a book,'" Mary Kloehn said. "So my husband combs through the grocery for kids' books. He thought it was a dumb idea when we got it, but now he's the librarian of the century."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643