Todd Bol hammered together the first Little Free Library. Then he built a movement around it.
Bol believed the now-ubiquitous little boxes of books — and the neighbors who cared for them — could change a block, a city, the world. So he brought them to front yards all over, often installing them himself. Known for his wild optimism and keen business sense, the Little Free Library founder died Thursday morning, just weeks after he was found to have pancreatic cancer. He was 62.
"He was always looking at how the world could be a better place and believed that people were really how to achieve that," said Margret Aldrich, who wrote 2015's "The Little Free Library Book."
Using wood from his old garage door, Bol fashioned the first library-on-a-stick in 2009 on his deck in Hudson, Wis. It was a tribute to his mom, June Bol, who was always welcoming kids to their Stillwater kitchen table for a sandwich or help with homework. "It was a spiritual gesture," Bol explained in 2013.
At a garage sale in 2010, his neighbors cooed.
So he built a few more boxes, selling one and giving away a few dozen more. Bol set a goal of 2,150 — to beat the number of Carnegie Libraries in the country. Less than a decade later, more than 75,000 dollhouse-size libraries have sprouted on front lawns in 88 countries.
"I want to see a Little Free Library on every block and a book in every hand," Bol said.
Bol was diagnosed this month with pancreatic cancer and, after a single round of chemotherapy, peritoneal cancer. When he moved into hospice care, Little Free Library — the nonprofit that he founded and ran as executive director — alerted its "stewards," the tens of thousands of people who care for the little libraries.
In a recent, hourslong interview in his Hudson home, Bol reflected on the power of the little libraries and the people behind them. "I can give you thousands of examples of people doing things across the globe," he said, "fixing their neighborhood one book, one child at a time."
The serial entrepreneur spoke about how, after he lost his job, his wife Susan encouraged him to take some time for himself. So he took off on a road trip. "It was like 'Easy Rider' — but with a minivan and self-help tapes," Bol joked. Then he started messing with that old garage door, building a miniature red schoolhouse and stuffing books inside.
Bol loved the little boxes — the books within them and the tales behind them. Aldrich traveled with him to New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere, watching Bol speak with passion about the project. But he'd always pass along the microphone, encouraging people to tell their own stories.
"He never got tired of seeing someone's Little Free Library," she said. "Every Little Free Library was his favorite Little Free Library. He genuinely loved this movement and the people behind it."
Bol saw the libraries as hubs and town squares. As solutions to big, knotty problems. Little Free Library now works with law enforcement, turning police cruisers into bookmobiles. Last year, it launched Action Book Club, encouraging members to read books on timely topics, then do service projects together. Up next: tutoring.
"Kids reading and people reading to them, you know, it changes everything," he said. "It changes the whole attitude of what is valued in a community. A Little Free Library is this sweet little nudge."
"It shows that if we work together, we can fix things and we can make this happen," he said.
Several times a year, Bol drove to Cleveland with a truckload of little libraries, books and other goodies, said Margaret Bernstein, a Little Free Library board member. That's where the nonprofit launched another one of his big ideas: Little Free Library Neighborhoods. "It goes beyond the literacy work," said Bernstein, director of advocacy and community initiatives at WKYC-TV. "Todd accomplished something that I didn't know if we really thought could happen: He got neighbors talking to each other.
"He restored human connections," she said.
When Bernstein learned that Bol was in hospice care, she began tying silver ribbons around little libraries in Cleveland. She paused at one of them, realizing that it was a library Bol himself had installed. "And I mean, he got on his belly to put it in," she said. "He had to dig the rocks out by hand.
"There was a servant inside Todd," she said.
On that ribbon, she wrote, "Thank you, Todd Bol."
Bol's survivors include his wife of 34 years, Susan, and their adult children, Allison and Austin. Services are pending.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna