For more than two years now, Tony Bol and his wife Eden Penn have made wooden boxes for people who want to install them in their front yards to share something: books, food, seeds. Even poetry.
The idea might sound familiar. It was Tony's late brother, Todd, who hammered together a tiny library and planted it in his Hudson, Wis., front yard more than a decade ago, creating the Little Free Library movement.
What has happened since then has been one unexpected turn after another, none of it foreseeable, said Susan Bol, Todd's wife.
"He didn't expect this to be a big deal at all," she said.
It's been three years since Todd's death from pancreatic cancer. An idealist and romantic who saw the little wooden boxes as a solution to society's ills, Bol made his first box using wood from an old garage door. He installed it in his front yard and didn't think it would become much more than what he intended: a tribute to his mother. Then a neighbor held a garage sale in 2010, drawing people to the Bols' dead-end street.
"People were really looking at that library," laughed Susan. Spurred on by word-of-mouth advertising, Bol initially wanted to build 2,150, to beat the number of Carnegie libraries in the United States. The movement long ago surpassed that mark.
Last year, the Little Free Library nonprofit organization, based in Hudson, Wis., announced that it had donated its 100,000th library, a box that went to the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans in Houston.
Todd created the nonprofit, and Tony ran it briefly after his brother's death. He had worked there for about five years, but in late 2018 Tony struck out on his own to create a box-making company called Share With Others, based in the Bols' hometown of Stillwater.
A 2019 dispute with the Little Free Library organization means Bol can't use those three words — Little Free Library — but Bol said the waters have mostly calmed and thinks his brother would be happy that both he and the original Little Free Library nonprofit are at work creating a world of front-yard sharing.
Bol said he and Penn hired several builders including Amish carpenters to build their Share With Others boxes before the two of them add some final touches at their downtown Stillwater location at 233 Second St. The boxes are listed for sale on the Share With Others website and at Etsy.com, with prices ranging from $190 to $540.
The pandemic poured fuel on the idea of front-yard sharing, said Penn. The company saw their growth go "exponential," with some 2,500 boxes sold since they started the company. "For people it's about the experience and showing kindness and thoughtfulness," said Penn.
Today, what started with books has become much more, with food pantries rising in popularity during the pandemic.
According to the organization Feeding America, some 42 million people in the United States, including 13 million children, may experience food insecurity in 2021. That's one out of every six children in the U.S.
New pantries keep popping up. The nonprofit Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul bought five of the Share With Others boxes to use as little free pantries and expect to install them in the coming weeks. The group's Department of Indian Work operates a food shelf serving 900 families and about 2,500 individuals a year.
"We're not in an ideal location; we're at Summit and Snelling, and our families reside predominantly in the east metro," said Kelly Miller, director of the Department of Indian Work. An upcoming office move to Little Canada won't make it easier, but during a recent brainstorming session, the group's emergency services coordinator, Theresa Halvorson-Lee, wondered if the boxes could help extend their food shelf hours and locations.
A check on city permits found that as long as they were installed on private property, no extra paperwork was needed.
Stuffed with canned goods, rice, pasta and other basics, the five Share With Others boxes will soon stand in neighborhoods closer to the organization's community members. The plan for now is that Halvorson-Lee will restock them weekly.
"We just want to make sure that if there's an immediate need, people can stop by this pantry box. We don't see this as eliminating our services or our food shelf," Miller said.
It's the sort of development that would have made Todd Bol deeply proud, said his wife, Susan.
"He would be delighted that this is moving forward and engaging more people and these other needs," she said.