If you live in Los Angeles, it’s possible you’ve noticed birdhouse-like wood structures popping up around your neighborhood. Except these houses have a glass-paned door so you can see inside, and inside are books. A sign above the door likely reads THE LITTLE FREE LIBRARY and TAKE A BOOK, RETURN A BOOK. It was on a recent walk with my wife near our Eagle Rock home that I opened the door of the structure I first noticed and looked inside.
There, 30 titles were lined up end to end with more books stacked on a single shelf. “Great Expectations” and “The Great Gatsby” sat alongside “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and something by Mary Higgins Clark. It was the odder titles that I got a kick out of: A massive volume on family medicine, a slim paperback that offered advice on talking to your kids about sex, and one book titled simply “Your Best Birth.” There was also “Fine Wines of California,” written at a time when chilled Rosés and sweet red Burgundys were in fashion. (Flipping through the pages, I could almost hear the soothing tones of Orson Welles advising me to guzzle some Gallo.) I really wanted to take that wine book home, but didn’t have anything to replace it with, so I made plans to come back with something not written by Mary Higgins Clark and make the exchange.
A few days later I returned, interested in finding out more about this pop-up lending library. Here’s what I discovered: In 2009, a man in Wisconsin built the first lending library as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher, who had just passed away. Then he made some for the neighbors, then for a bunch of friends in Madison. One thing led to another and now iterations of the concept can be found all over the world, and 38 Little Free Libraries are right here in the City of Angels.
I was an avid reader as a child, and continued right up to my thirties. But things change, and today I find it’s a struggle to find the time to read. But I still love books. I love the smell of them, and I love used bookstores. I especially love it when they have a fat tabby cat sleeping on a pile of books next to the cash register. If they served wine at used bookstores, I’d never leave.
I know the city pretty well and have been to most of the areas listed on this online map of lending libraries before, so the idea of to driving to and experience them all at once sounded kind of cool. Using Google Maps, I came up with two day-long road trips. Day One would lead me through Silverlake, Loz Feliz, and Hollywood before a right turn into Burbank would take me west through the Valley and into Sylmar. I’d head back down through Montrose and Glendale into Pasadena. Day Two was all about the Westside: East Hollywood would be followed by stops in Larchmont Village, Mid-City, Brentwood, Santa Monica, Venice, Playa Del Rey, and finally Culver City. (My apologies to the folks with Libraries in Manhattan and Redondo Beach. I had to draw the line somewhere.)
So, on a warm Saturday morning, I filled a Trader Joe’s bag with some of my old books and hit the road. My plan was this; take pictures of the library and the books inside and make notes of anything interesting or unusual. Then put the camera away and enjoy the library as a visitor. I’d take a book and replace it with one from my bag.
At first I was self-conscious of how suspicious I looked, a guy driving up in a dingy Toyota truck, taking pictures of your house, and then just as quickly driving away. But everyone I met seemed happy to see me using the library. After the first few stops I began to relax.
I started with the library that I had found on my neighborhood walk a few weeks earlier. The wine book was still there. In its place I left “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” The next stop was across the street from Occidental College. The books were just what you’d expect from a Liberal Arts College crowd. Sure there was stuff by John Grisham and Tom Clancy, but there was also “Believing in Islam Women,” “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and “Chant and be Happy” by the Swami Prabhupada. “Whipping Girl; A Transsexual Woman on Sexism” rubbed elbows with “White Woman, Race Matters.” My contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in exchange for a cool book on Jazz written by Studs Terkel. I averaged about two to three libraries an hour and only got lost once. Sometimes the Library was sponsored by a business like the Dentist in Larchmont Village. It had a pretty standard selection: Michael Crichton, James Patterson, and five titles by Stuart Woods. But that same library also had a copy of the AMOK Journal, which if you’re not familiar, is a large volume dealing with such death-related subjects as necrophilia and asphyxiation. I opted for a John Irving novel instead.
Sometimes it really was a scavenger hunt. One Westside address led me to a large Jewish Community Center. After walking up and down the street a few times, I finally went up to the security guard and nervously asked if he knew where the library was. Following his directions, I went through the lobby and down a flight of stairs to the basement. The sound of kids playing ping pong led me along the hall and around a corner to the Rec Room. There was the library, set on a small table and stuffed with books for kids.
One of the best parts of the experience was seeing how different folks had personalized their libraries (you can opt to purchase one yourself or find tips on how to build one here). Some were set in wonderful gardens like at the house in Sylmar that had gnome statues and six books for kids by Roald Dahl to choose from. Some had built-in benches like the library in Burbank. That’s where I enjoyed a children’s book titled “Who Were the Beatles?” (apparently without irony). Others had wrought-iron chairs like the place in Altadena that offered a boxed set of the Narnia Chronicles. One family in Pasadena keeps their library inside a large steamer trunk on the front porch. There’s no sign, you just need to know it’s there. One family had framed their Library in a large wood American flag. A scholarly volume on Confucianism was the highlight of their selections.
My last stop was at a library in Pasadena, a tiny handmade replica of the beautiful Craftsman house that it stood in front of. As if that isn’t cool enough, it’s framed with a string of solar-powered Christmas lights. It was dusk when I arrived so the lights came to life as I was glancing through a copy of “Last Tango in Paris.”
Day Two went just as well. One of the first libraries I visted was a plain open box with a shelf, no door, and an unusual choice of books: “How to Love Wine,” a book on gambling, and a guidebook to Nashville. A few stops later my options were “Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul” or something cryptically titled “Anger, Sex, Doubt, and Death.” But I think the Eclectic Selection Award goes to to the library in Valley Glen that had, among other titles, Shakespeare’s “12th Night,” a book on women’s spirituality, and “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx.
In Frogtown I found the only library that had a self-published book. “A Taste of Atwater” was twenty Xeroxed pages of recipes contributed by the author’s friends and neighbors. It shared space with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Dianetics,” and “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis. Over in Silverlake in the heart of hipster-central was a large library that had Larry McMurtry, Jack Kerouac, and a wonderful old copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Before my trip was done, I stumbled across a library that wasn’t on the map. (The owners apparently didn’t want to deal with signing up and just copied a neighbor who had an official library down the street.) Who knows how many ‘unofficial’ Little Free Rebel Libraries are out there. Sadly, two of the libraries listed on the map were no longer there. At one site I found a lonely post in the ground. At the other was a tree stump with a “missing cat” poster and an American flag.
In addition to mixing up my own collection of books, the two-day experience shed light on the reading habits of Angelenos. Who are the most popular authors of lending library books? It was a three-way tie for third place. Michael Connelly, Stuart Woods, and Alexander McCall Smith each clocked in with nine books. The ever-present John Grisham came in second with ten, and the author who had the most books in the Little Free Libraries of Los Angeles was C.S. Lewis, with eleven. On the other end of the scale, I counted a surprisingly low tally of three books by Stephen King. And I encountered only four Harry Potter adventures.
In addition, I found that three copies of five very different works were scattered throughout the city. “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyers, “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, “A Horse and his Boy” by C.S. Lewis, “The Associate” by John Grisham, and “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens were equally popular. In many ways, these titles are the perfect encapsulation of what a library should be: Something for everyone.
A tank of gas later, I was convinced the art of reading—and more importantly, the reading of good old fashioned hard copy books—is alive and well. Sure digital editions are on the rise, but you wouldn’t lend a Kindle to strangers. I’d like to think the person who left behind their copy of “The Red Badge of Courage” did so because it was important to them that someone else read it. Maybe some young kid will take a chance and read “Great Expectations” and be moved to write the next great novel. I’ll end with an excerpt of the inscription someone wrote inside the copy of “How to Love Wine” that they left behind: “Cheers to the next person who reads this.”