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Little Free Libraries spreading the love of books in unexpected places


WATERTOWN — The tiny library on Paddock Street sticks out like a bookmark tucked into a good mystery novel.

It’s on a post in front of 168 Paddock St. At first look it could be mistaken for a mailbox.

But for neighborhood residents like George L. Marlette of Sherman Street, the box, full of free books, is a carousel of mysteries, biographies and words of wisdom.

Mr. Marlette walks by the “library” daily with Pippin, his Lhasa Apso, and likes to view, in dog-paced passing, what’s been added to it. But he had never stopped to grab a book until a sunny late morning in mid-April when he saw the library’s steward, Allison F. Gorham, in front of it, talking with a visitor.

Mr. Marlette, a Navy veteran, told Mrs. Gorham that for the past several days he’d had his eyes on the mystery novel “Spy Sinker” by Len Deighton.

She told him to grab it, since that’s what the library was made for.

“Do you want this one back?” Mr. Marlette asked Mrs. Gorham. “Because if you don’t, I usually pass it along to somebody else.”

“Go right ahead, George,” Mrs. Gorham said. “It’s all about circulation — it’s the love of reading and the love of books.”

The Paddock Street pedestal is officially known as a Little Free Library, and they are sprouting up across the country. There are approximately 15,000 of the structures worldwide, mainly in the U.S., registered with Little Free Library, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.

The Little Free Library in Watertown is the newest of four in the north country. The philosophy behind them is “take a book, return a book” with a casual approach to the “returning” part.

There also are Little Free Libraries on County Route 123 in Henderson Harbor, on a boat dock on Honey Bee Island on the St. Lawrence River near Lansdowne, Ontario, and on the SUNY Potsdam campus.

The first Little Free Library was created in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a small model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher who loved reading. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. The concept spread.

The Little Free Library on Paddock Street also is in honor of someone who loved reading, Helen G. Farrell, a former Jefferson County commissioner of jurors who died in 2012. The house at 168 Paddock St. was her home. It’s now occupied by one of her five children, Kathy Farrell.

Mrs. Gorham, the library’s steward and another child of Helen’s, said the family decided to install the Little Free Library last fall on the anniversary of her mother’s death. It was built by her husband, Brett. The couple lives on Ten Eyck Street.

Mrs. Gorham said her mother’s old house is full of books that find their way to the Little Free Library.

“What’s the point of having them sit on your shelves if somebody else can enjoy them, especially if people can’t afford to buy their own?” Mrs. Gorham said. “Maybe people can’t get to the public library.”

Even though the concept is “take a book, leave a book” it’s not written in stone.

“If you take one and don’t bring it back, no big deal,” Mrs. Gorham said.

But something that she discourages is the tiny library becoming a drop-off point for books.

“We’ve had a lot of people who said they have a ton of books they’d like to donate,” Mrs. Gorham said. “We appreciate that and it’s kind of people. But we wanted to encourage people to build their own library.”

Another option if people have excess books, Mrs. Gorham said, is for to donate them to Flower Memorial Library. Its Friends of Flower Memorial Library group hosts an annual book sale that helps support the facility. Other community libraries hold similar sales.

The Paddock Street Little Free Library holds several mystery books, which were favored by Mrs. Farrell.

“She read to escape,” Mrs. Gorham said. “She was incredibly intelligent. I remember the stuff she read and I commented on the authors to her. I was like, ‘Mom, this is what you read!?’ Because I thought she’d be reading some real cerebral stuff. But she read to completely escape. She had five kids and was a single mother. She had to do what she could to tune out the noise.”

There is a possibility that the Paddock Street Little Free Library could be out of circulation. Mrs. Gorham said the house at 168 Paddock St. will be on the market later this year.

“We hope that whoever buys the house will be willing to maintain this,” Mrs. Gorham said, arranging books in the library. “If they don’t want it on their property, we’ll be happy to take it down. But we would love to work with the new owners to continue it when we sell the home.”

busy ‘bee’ island library

The Little Free Library on Honey Bee Island straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.

“Technically, it’s in Canadian waters,” said Michael Laprade, who co-stewards the library with his wife, Janice. “The thing is, if we dive off our dock, we come out in U.S. waters.”

Mr. Laprade said the Honey Bee library is the only Little Free Library in the world that’s accessible only by water. It is on a dock facing the river, and he and his wife have to get in their boat to refill it.

Honey Bee Island is on the “international rift,” north of Wellesley Island. The narrow channel, where boat traffic goes very slowly, separates Wellesley Island in the U.S. and Hill Island in Canada.

Mr. Laprade and his wife are seasonal residents of Honey Bee Island. Their library was installed in the summer of 2012.

“We get a lot of small boat traffic coming through,” Mr. Laprade said. “It’s something that is visible to many. We make a wide range of books available for dads, moms, kids and teenagers. It’s really a small version of what you’d find in a public library.”

From their island home, the Laprades often hear exclamations of surprise coming from passing boaters.

“We hear people go by and say, ‘No Way! I thought you were kidding — there’s a library here!” Mr. Laprade said.

The “leave a book” aspect of the Little Free Library guideline is not enforced.

“They are welcomed to help themselves,” Mr. Laprade said of readers. “If they have a book they’d like to leave behind for somebody else, that’s great. And if they don’t — and many times if they are traveling, they don’t — then they don’t have to.”

Campus little free library

The Little Free Library at SUNY Potsdam, in the lobby of the Frederick W. Crumb Memorial Library, was installed in January 2013. SUNY Potsdam art major Brittany A. Barry from Chittenango, now a senior, created a bright green “cubby” with arms, legs and giant cartoon eyes. It was designed as a way for students to blow off steam with some light reading.

Miss Barry designed the library out of an old dictionary stand.

Elizabeth C. Andrews, senior assistant librarian at SUNY Potsdam, said a contest was held to give the little library a name. It was dubbed Quiggles.

“He’s still in the same spot in our foyer and is quite popular, judging by how fast the books disappear off the shelves and new ones take their place,” Ms. Andrews said.

Henderson Harbor ‘library’

The Little Free Library at 13680 County Route 123, Henderson Harbor, was installed late last summer by Susan Powers Washburn, a Watertown native who spends summers in Henderson Harbor and winters in North Carolina.

“I did it as a sense of community and to encourage children to read,” Mrs. Washburn said.

Mrs. Washburn was in Henderson Harbor three weeks ago for a short stay and put the library in operation for the season. She converted an old toy box into the library.

“People have left wonderful notes in the library,” she said. “Some have even left notes in books as to why they liked it. That’s been fun.”

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