There are many Little Free Libraries on my regular walking route. I’ve never stopped to count them, but it’s at least a couple dozen, and they all feel like old friends to me — the one with the frog door handle, the one with the little solar panels, the one that holds nothing but children’s books, the new one with the mullioned window. Fancy!
I have to confess, I have mixed feelings about Little Free Libraries. Stocking them with books to give away (which I also do) is a double-edged sword: Yes, it’s great to share books, and it’s great to have a place where anyone can happen across something wonderful and take it home.
But there is a melancholy, too, to seeing all these books, no longer wanted, set out on the curb like so many thinned hostas or old pieces of furniture: Free!
Surely books are more valuable than that.
Lately, though, since the pandemic began — and even some time before that — the libraries have begun serving another purpose. People are augmenting their supply of free books with a supply of free household goods.
The Little Free Pantry movement, a sort of practical buddy to the fun-loving Little Free Libraries (it’s a separate organization, but they like each other), has been around for about four years, with neighbors setting up way stations specifically for canned goods and other essentials.
But now folks are adding these items to the libraries, too. It’s hard to walk past a Little Free Library these days without spotting a can of peas or corn tucked in among the books, or a roll of toilet paper front and center, or a handmade coronavirus mask.
I nabbed my first mask from a library on a walk about a month ago. Until then, I’d been making do with an old paper respirator that I found in our basement, left over from a remodeling project.
When I saw the white homemade mask, I was speechless. What a great idea, I thought. Somebody needs that. Heck, I need that. And I took it.
When I walked past that same library a few days ago, there were two more masks, each wrapped in plastic, ready to go.
The folks at the Little Free Library headquarters know all about this. They have set up a clickable map, so that you can find “sharing libraries,” as they call them, in your neighborhood.
The map, which is updated daily, is fascinating. There are links to libraries that stock household goods all over the country, even elsewhere in the world.
Click on it and the map gives you the name of the library (“My Whole Life Changed” is in Minneapolis; one in Hastings is called “Little Free Anything” and also stocks toys) and the address.
There’s a spot for special instructions, too, which is usually a polite request to leave some for others, or to remember to shut the door. One in Rochester, Minn., suggests you can find the right house if you look for the giraffe in the yard.
The map is not comprehensive — stewards of Little Free Libraries self-report to be included, and it’s pretty clear that a lot are not bothering. So while you can use the map to find a library that stocks masks and food, you can also just use your eyes. They’re everywhere.
It’s a lovely thing to walk through a neighborhood on a fine spring morning, the air scented with lilacs and lilies of the valley, and to pass such tangible evidence of neighbors’ good will and generosity.
A mask. A can of beans. A copy of “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver.
Something to eat. Something to read. Something to keep you safe.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks