In the Broad Street Market, just across from Tep’s Seafood, there’s a newspaper box that doesn’t sell newspapers.
Once stacked with copies of the Patriot-News, it now dispenses books by Hemingway, Tolkien and, in any given week, maybe something about gardening or Clifford the Big Red Dog.
You’ve stumbled upon the Friends of Midtown Little Free Library.
Earlier this year, the community organization transformed two old news boxes into free lending libraries—one in the Market and the other at the Neighborhood Center at N. 3rd and Kelker streets in Harrisburg.
Each box holds about 15 to 25 books that anyone can borrow. When the stock runs low, Friends of Midtown refills them with donations from members and neighbors.
And, unlike a traditional library, there are no cards, no shushing, and it’s even OK if the books don’t get returned at all, said Matt Caylor, the group’s business chair.
“If they find a book they really like, and they’re going to take some joy out of it, go right ahead,” he said.
Friends of Midtown has actually brought a national trend to Harrisburg. More than 750 of these libraries are built each month, according to Todd Bol, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Little Free Library.
Bol created his first library outside of his Wisconsin home partly to excite children about reading. Kids with access to books have higher rates of literacy, and communities with higher rates of literacy have lower crime rates, he said.
“Parents that read, read to their children,” he said. “Parents that don’t read, don’t read to their children. That’s the cycle.”
Today, there are more than 16,000 little free libraries in more than 65 countries, said Bol.
In our area, in addition to the two in Harrisburg, there are libraries outside a house in Linglestown and another in Mechanicsburg, according to the registry on the organization’s website.
Many libraries are custom-built—often cute, sometimes kitschy. The first library that Bol created was designed to look like a little, one-room schoolhouse. You also can purchase a library from Little Free Library’s website.
Friends of Midtown needed something more durable than a cute box that resembled a tiny chalet or a British phone booth, both available from the website. So, it opted for the sturdy, metal boxes donated by the Patriot-News.
The libraries have been very well used. Caylor said that he doesn’t formally track the books that Brotate through the library, but he notices that they don’t stay for long. Two or three volunteers refill them weekly in the Broad Street Market and every other week outside the Neighborhood Center.
“At my house, I have shelves of books that we are rotating in and out of the libraries. That way, it’s always fresh. Ideally, whenever people come here, they will find something new,” Caylor said.
Children’s books and adult pop literature are the most popular genres.
“We had one of the little boys here [at the Neighborhood Center] ask for Pokemon,” said Caylor. “We put that request out on Facebook. We will see if we get any donations that show up here or come to us with Pokemon.”
Books about Transformers were so popular they barely made it onto the shelf. As volunteers were filling up the box, children were taking the books out. “I think the books were gone before we left,” he said.
Caylor said that there is a grandmother who comes in weekly to take books for her grandchildren.
Since May, the Broad Street Market location has been catering to an older audience with “summer classics,” works by such authors as John Updike and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Bol referred to the libraries as “water coolers for literacy.” They can encourage a sense of community as people chat, and you never know who you’ll meet while perusing through the selection. People have told Bol that they met more neighbors in a week through their Little Free Libraries than they had in the last few years.
Caylor hopes that the libraries will encourage more socializing, as well as more foot traffic in Midtown. “Close to here [at the Neighborhood Center], you have the Fire Museum. We’d love to see people walk up to the Fire Museum and see what’s there,” he said.
In addition, the location in the Broad Street Market gives people another reason to visit that wonderful facility, he said.
More than anything, though, he hopes that the Little Free Libraries encourage kids to pick up books they wouldn’t otherwise read.
“If they can get one kid to develop a love of reading or just start reading, they’re totally worth it,” Caylor said.
For more information, visit www.friendsofmidtown.org or www.littlefreelibrary.org.