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Originally published July 11, 2012 at 8:42 PM | Page modified July 11, 2012 at 9:17 PM

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Little Free Libraries pop up in Puget Sound area

Little Free Libraries can be a friendly way to share books with neighbors.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In an age of cynicism, when everything seems so ironic, there are some who choose not to be.

In the Northwest, and cities across the country and even in countries like Ghana and China, in the past year some 2,100 simple, little gestures of goodwill have been built: Little Free Libraries.

It looks like a birdhouse on a post, usually in front of somebody's house. There are about a dozen in the Puget Sound area, with more on the way.

What they contain are free books. The little hutches each fit about 20 or so titles.

See a book that piques your interest? Take it.

And if at some point you'd like to contribute a book, great.

In Seattle, you've got an ex-punk rocker like Andy Bookwalter putting a hutch up on the grass strip on the sidewalk in front of his Georgetown home. He sports a goatee and a Sonics T-shirt. That'd be Sonics as in the great 1960s Northwest garage band by that name, not the basketball team.

But these days, Bookwalter, 43, is a maintenance technician for a supermarket chain; married, with two sons, ages 5 and 7.

"I like the anarchist nature of it," he says about the hutch he and his sons built out of scrap stuff in his home shop. "It's totally free. Public libraries are one reason I still think there is hope for humanity."

It was dedicated June 21, with a plaque that says, "Doug's Library," and holding books such as Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" and Stephen King's "Everything's Eventual." Doug was the family's black Lab that died a couple of months ago at age 13.

"I figure people will say, 'But Doug didn't read.' Yeah, but he liked people and liked making people happy," Bookwalter says.

The Little Free Library is now a phenomenon that began in Hudson, Wis. It has become so popular that it has a hard time listing all the new Little Free Libraries on a Google map on its website http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/.

You'd be surprised how the little structures bring together a neighborhood; you know, getting to know the people a few doors away over an actual novel or cooking book that you hold in your hands. Print still rules.

On Queen Anne Hill, there is another Little Free Library, at Second Avenue West between West Boston and West Crockett streets. Michelle Nash is 64 and says she built it herself out of leftover cedar siding that a neighbor had, and stuff she got at recycle stores.

The Little Free Library website offers free plans for making one, which is what Nash did. If you follow the instructions, the books inside will stay dry in rain, snow and wind.

For those not handy, the nonprofit sells kits that range from $250 for a basic model, to $600 for a miniature version of a red British phone booth that can hold 30 to 40 books.

Nash was quite innovative in making her hutch. When she needed a couple of 4-by-4s sawed, she walked around the neighborhood until she heard somebody sawing, and asked if they could cut them for her. Of course, they did.

Her Little Library went up in April, and Nash has marveled ever since at the response.

It's almost magical," she says. "Sharing with no rules, no boundaries."

By the hutch, Nash keeps a notebook where people can leave messages.

She has a photo of a thank-you card and four cupcakes left there by a mom and her two little kids, who had found a cookbook they liked. They used a recipe for peanut-butter cupcakes in it, baked them, and returned with samples.

Nash has dedicated her Little Free Library to her late husband, Bob Nash, a Marine Corps pilot who she says suffered a spinal-cord injury when his chopper was downed in Vietnam. He was a paraplegic who shot himself in the head five years ago, ravaged by Parkinson's disease, Nash says. They had been married 38 years.

So a note such as this one left at the library carries special meaning for Nash: "Just a note to let you know how much this moved me. My disabled girlfriend used to come by here. We cried from the sweetness of it in what sometimes seems a harsh world. Thank you."

The two men who started the Little Free Library are Rick Brooks, 64, and Todd Bol, 56.

Brooks is an outreach program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He does a lot of workshops on everything from preventing lead poisoning to getting through to kids about drinking and driving. Bol's background is in developing businesses in foreign countries.

In the fall of 2009, Bol happened to attend a workshop by Brooks, and then told him about a memorial he had built in his front yard in Hudson for his late mother, June Bol, a schoolteacher. It was in the shape of a little red schoolhouse, with a bell on top, and offered free books.

Bol soon found himself starting to make Little Free Libraries for others, having gone to an old barn that had been torn down and gotten trailer loads of wood. People loved the little buildings.

"They'd tell me they had met more people than in the last 10 years, 20 years, 30 years," Bol says.

By 2011, they were getting national publicity. This year, they hear every day about more of the hutches going up.

On June 20, Dennis and Karin Barth, put one up in front of their home near 165th Avenue Southeast and Southeast 145th Street in Renton.

The husband is a retired letter carrier and his wife, frankly, thought this would be a great project for him.

Dennis painted the hutch red, white and blue.

He was a little worried that on July 4, maybe neighborhood kids would put firecrackers inside the library, kids being kids. Nothing happened.

Bol says that, nationally, they haven't heard of any vandalism. He theorizes that a kid might think twice about damaging a Little Library, knowing his grandmother has gotten books from there.

Dennis Barth says the only problem he's had is telling someone that no political leaflets are allowed in his Little Library. Just keep it to Stephen King, OK?

In Ballard, Mike Hirschler and Starrla Johnson just moved into a home on Northwest 62nd Street between 15th and 17th avenues Northwest. Hirschler had a Little Free Library built as a housewarming present for Johnson.

On Memorial Day weekend, they asked neighbors to join them for cookies and apple juice for the library's grand opening — and asked them to bring a book if they wanted. They did.

There is an ever-changing menu of books in that Ballard library. Puzzle books. The Bible (gone within a day). Numerous children's books.

Somebody even leaves little Post-it notes with some women's novels: "This is funny chick-lit." "This is sad chick-lit."

Maybe in a few years, the Little Free Libraries will be remembered as just another fad.

For right now, though, Rick Brooks says about the little wooden structures that are spreading across the country, "This is obviously about more than just books. Something is going on."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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