Whether it’s a Hemingway classic, a George R.R. Martin fantasy, a steamy romance or a children’s storybook you’re looking for, one — or all — of those could be waiting just down your street.
Little Free Libraries have sprung up across the Bay Area in recent years in curbside boxes that are as unique as their stewards, from a Victorian steampunk-style version in San Jose to a midcentury mod in Pinole. They’re not outliers, either. The nonprofit that promotes these little book-filled houses has registered more than 150,000 throughout the world.
The idea began in 2009, when Todd H. Bol erected a book-sharing box outside his home in Hudson, Wisconsin. Word spread. Soon, other book lovers began making their own curbside libraries. By 2012, the Little Free Library had incorporated as a nonprofit to promote and inspire neighborhood book exchanges.
The goal is simple: Encourage literacy and the joy of reading by providing free access to books of all kinds. Stewards of the curbside libraries implore their visitors to take a book and to leave one, too. You can keep a book for as long as you like, then pass it along to a friend, return it to the library or replace it with a different one. No one is standing guard or levying late fines.
The Bay Area has hundreds of Little Free Libraries scattered through neighborhoods in every city. You can find a Little Free Library — or the inspiration to create one yourself — via littlefreelibrary.org. Meanwhile, let us introduce you to some of the stewards in Bay Area neighborhoods.
The Victorian steampunk library
Michael and Lori Tierney, 368 N. 64th St., San Jose
Michael and Lori are both chemists, although Michael is semi-retired. Their Little Free Library, built by Michael with a nod to steampunk and San Jose’s Hensley Historic District, was one of the first 2,000 libraries registered. It’s officially No. 1,878.
“My wife and I both love libraries and books,” Michael says, “and we thought it would be a neat thing to do.”
The couple put stickers in each book that passes through the library, and have so far seen more than 7,000 books come and go.
A few years ago, the library was vandalized — twice — and Michael considered taking it down. When neighbors heard, they rallied behind the little library, encouraging him to continue it and donating money for repairs and books to restock. Michael needed no other convincing.
What’s in the library: At the moment, options include “Hey Ranger 2: More True Tales of Humor & Misadventure from the Great Outdoors” by Jim Burnett, “Red Storm Rising” by Tom Clancy and “CMOS VLSI Design” by M.S. Suma.
A cottage of books
Gillianna Diaz, 430 Boulder Drive, Antioch
Gillianna’s Blessing Library, contained in a cottage-style box, is the work of 13-year-old Gillianna Diaz, a seventh grader at Antioch’s Holy Rosary Catholic school. Gillianna has always wanted to help others in her community. When she learned about the Little Free Libraries, she told her mother she wanted to open one.
To raise funds for the library, Gillianna used the money she’d earned doing chores to buy chocolates that she sold outside her house, lemonade stand-style. When word got out about what she was trying to do, people from all over Antioch began contributing. She raised $500 in three days.
Sticks and Stones Creations, a local company that does custom carpentry, offered to make Gillianna’s library box on two conditions: that she help build it and that she donate the money she would have paid for the box to charity. No problem. Gillianna enjoyed learning how to build the box. Already a volunteer for Hijas Del Campo, a group that assists migrant farm workers, she used the money to purchase Christmas baskets for the workers and their families.
Although Gillianna has struggled with her own reading, she recognizes the importance of books and literacy, says her proud mother, Nereida Sarat.
What’s in the library: “Dune” by Frank Herbert, “A Feast for Crows” by George R.R. Martin, “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville
The Miniature House
Rynn Liana Boyden, 263 Sullivan Court, Pleasanton
Established: February 2022
When COVID shut down communities, many people found themselves with a lot of free time. Rynn, a barista who attends Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, began taking walks around their neighborhood, which boasts several Little Free Libraries.
An avid reader, Rynn decided to open their own library. Embarking on a little research beforehand, Rynn checked out all the libraries they could find, taking note of the style of the box, the colors used and the selection of books inside. They borrowed a book from each library to include in theirs, then purchased a custom-made box from Etsy, painting and decorating it to match their own suburban home.
The library is stocked with Rynn’s own favorite books and those they purchased thrifting.
“Reading is very important for our community. I love doing it,” Rynn says. “I think (this) is also a good place for people to donate books and to share what they read.”
What’s in the library: “Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever” by Richard Scarry, “A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein, “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
The Midcentury Modern Library
Nicole Botha, 960 Barkley Court, Pinole
Nicole was still a newcomer to Pinole when she came across her first Little Free Library. She thought it was not only a great idea in general, but a good way to get to know her neighbors and become part of the community.
“I’ve lived in areas where I never got to know my neighbors,” she says. The Little Free Library “has been a bright spot for the community.”
Nicole and her husband built the library box themselves, giving it a midcentury modern feel, and keep it well stocked with help from random donations, including boxes of books left alongside the library.
What’s in the library: “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Tough Stuff: Stories of Tough Times and Lessons Learned” by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, “A Time for Mercy” by John Grisham; “Port Mortuary” by Patricia Cornwell
The Eagle Project
Brian Coons, 557 Kahrs Ave., Pleasant Hill
The Little Free Library outside Pleasant Hill’s Episcopal Church of the Resurrection is one of the larger libraries in the area, with six shelves packed with a variety of books. The library box was an Eagle Scout project done by then College Park High student Brian, who did all the planning, fundraising, construction and initial stocking of the library.
Now that Brian is at UC Davis, his dad, Richard Coons, has taken over stewardship of the library. He says it is organic and pretty much takes care of itself. People take books and drop off books. The shelves always are filled, and Richard just keeps an eye on it to make sure nothing is amiss.
What’s in the library: “Treasure Island” by Robert Lewis Stevenson, “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, “Dancing in the Light” by Shirley MacLaine
Little Free Libraries by the numbers
Some 250 million books have been shared through registered Little Free Libraries, profoundly increasing book access for readers of all ages and backgrounds.
More than 1,500 Little Free Libraries have been opened at no cost in communities where they are needed most, through the organization’s Impact Library Program.
Eleven cities have adopted the Read in Color initiative, which has distributed more than 30,000 diverse books celebrating BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized voices, and other communities have joined the Native American initiative to provide books on reservations.
Worldwide, 115 countries have joined the Little Free Library network.