A New Chapter in Book Borrowing
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A New Chapter in Book Borrowing

Toronto's Little Free Libraries offer a novel and whimsical way to share the joy of reading.

Toronto's first Little Free Library.

Toronto loves its libraries. Never was this more evident than when public library hours—and entire branches—were threatened with cuts last year. But for library lovers who may want to switch it up from time to time, or who are loath to face being last on a long hold list, there is another option for book borrowing. It’s called the Little Free Library.

These birdhouse-sized libraries, already available in locations around the world, are beginning to appear in the Beach. They offer communities access to free books 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no membership required. There are no late fees, and very few rules for borrowing.

“The idea is for people to take a book and return a book, even if it’s returned to a different spot,” explains Bill Wrigley, a Beach resident and steward of Toronto’s original Little Free Library, at 304 Lee Avenue. “These are lending libraries in the best sense.”

The Little Free Library movement, while still in its infancy in Toronto, has gained traction across the world. In 2009, Todd Bol, of Hudson, Wisconsin, was searching for a way to honour his late school-teacher mother. He built a miniature wooden one-room schoolhouse, set it up outside his home, and filled it with books. After enlisting some help spreading the word about his idea, the movement quickly snowballed across America’s midwest. Eventually, it spread across the globe, to places as far as Ghana, Germany, and England.

Wrigley, the leader of the movement in Canada, set up Toronto’s first Little Free Library—the organization’s 217th registered library—in his front yard. His goal is to work with the Beach and Annex communities to install 20 of the tiny structures. He believes that there are already six or seven in the Beach community, though only two are officially registered.

While Wrigley, who is nearing his eightieth birthday, got involved in the project solely for a little self-fulfillment, he says the lending program has turned into something “magical.”

“Once a book goes in, it is no longer mine,” Wrigley explains. “It’s now a book of the people.”

The community has caught on. Wrigley’s first Little Library, a small white cabinet designed to resemble the Beach branch of Toronto Public Library, launched on December 3 of last year, and has been going strong ever since. It moves six to ten books a day, and about 40 on busy weekends. Wrigley’s fondest memory of the project to date is seeing a group of young girls congregate on the his front lawn, reading books and chatting quietly, sprawled out on the grass.

“We live our lives going 100 miles an hour, but this allows people to stop and talk to each other,” Wrigley says. “It’s all about the joy of sitting down with a good book and getting lost in it.”

Monique Richard, another Beach-area Little Free Library steward, shares Wrigley’s passion for books, and is also interested in encouraging childhood literacy. She invested hundreds of dollars in purchasing and installing a Little Library.

“One of my main aims is to counter-push the influence of computers,” says Richard. “Parents need to bring home books and read them with their children.”

Though her library is focused on the needs of children, Richard also ensures she provides good reading material for adults. Well aware of the frustrations that come with long waits for popular books at the public library, she keeps her library—a small green cabinet in her front yard—stocked with recent bestsellers, including Fifty Shades of Grey, The Help, and a selection of popular magazines, simply because that’s what people like to read. She also offers up personal favourites, such as Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, so she can offer recommendations to regular visitors.

What’s next? Wrigley considers the project to be in its early stages in Toronto. He and others involved are reaching out to city councillors, BIAs, and community groups to help the program grow. He’s so committed to the project that he gives an average of two presentations a week to get the word out.

The plan is to expand into areas in need, as was done in the United States. Wrigley has his sights set on Regent Park, where the nearest public library is on the outskirts of the community.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have three of four of these little libraries within Regent Park?” Wrigley asks. “In Chicago, for example, several have been installed in places where children may have never before had a chance to borrow books.”

Wrigley would also like to see more Little Free Libraries in Toronto’s public spaces, including parks. He has been working with city councillors, including Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York), who is supportive of the project. While aware that there is a certain level of bureaucracy and red tape involved, Wrigley is committed, and he’s not easily deterred by paperwork.

“The mills of the gods grind slowly,” he says. “But that’s okay, we’ve got the time.”

Photos by Alex Pietrowski from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.