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Little Free Library brings neighbors together through books

Jonathan Beggs wanted an easy way for his neighbors to share books.

Using odds and ends of fiberboard and Douglas fir, the retired building contractor fashioned a hutch the size of a dollhouse. He gave it a pitched cedar-shingle roof capped with copper. The door, trimmed in bright red, opens to three shelves filled with books by Joyce Carol Oates, Tony Hillerman, James Michener and others. Below hangs a sign: "Take a book or bring a book or both."

In the half a year that Beggs' Little Free Library has perched on a post in front of his Sherman Oaks home, it has evolved into much more than a book exchange. It has turned strangers into friends and a sometimes impersonal neighborhood into a community. It has become a mini-town square, where people gather to discuss Sherlock Holmes, sustainability and genealogy.

"I met more neighbors in the first three weeks than in the previous 30 years," said Beggs, 76.

When a 9-year-old boy knocked on his door one morning to say how much he liked the little library, Beggs knew he was on to something. He added amenities to make it more welcoming. He crafted wooden benches from leftover beams and installed them on either side of the library amid redwood chips that cushion the feet.

Beggs heard about little libraries from another member of a group interested in self-sufficiency. "I thought it was such a cute idea, so I built one," he said. "It's a lot of fun."

His Little Free Library is part of a movement that started in Wisconsin and has begun to catch on in Southern California. In large cities and small towns, suburbs and rural communities, advocates see the libraries as a way to keep the printed word in the hands of seasoned and budding bibliophiles.

The concept of passing along a favorite book speaks to people's desire to connect in person at a time when much communication takes place via texts and Facebook, said Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor and director of cityLAB, a think tank.

"The small-scale sharing of something that was special to you seems like a great version of borrowing sugar and bringing tomatoes to your neighbor," Cuff said. "It helps you make connections to people who live around you."

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Little Free Library was the inspiration of Todd Bol, who in the fall of 2009 landed on a way to honor his late mother, a book-loving teacher. He built a miniature wooden one-room schoolhouse, mounted it outside his Hudson, Wis., home and stocked it with books. Even on rainy days, friends and neighbors would happen by to make selections, drop off books and remark on the library's cuteness.

Bol, an entrepreneur in international business development, enlisted Rick Brooks, a community outreach specialist in Madison, Wis., to help spread the word. In the last two years, nearly 1,800 library stewards, as Bol calls them, have registered cabinet-size athenaeums in about 45 states and dozens of countries, including Ghana, England and Germany.

Each owner pays $25 to the Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization, for a sign and a number. The group's website features a locater map and photos of people attending grand openings for libraries.

Bol anticipates nearly 3,000 registered libraries by the end of July.

That doesn't count the unregistered library of Susan and David Dworski, who after seeing a TV report about Little Free Library hired a handyman to convert a vintage beer crate into a book repository that hovers over their wooden fence on a Venice walk street.

Since opening their house of books on May 12, they have detected a familiar pattern. They hear the sound of footsteps approaching, fading and then returning. They hear the latch open. Then … silence. That is the sound of a friend or a stranger inspecting the books nestled within, which typically include memoirs, mysteries and self-help manuals.

Over the weeks, visitors have taken such varied titles as "McCullough's Brief Lives," "Mere Christianity" and "Living Wicca" and have returned, sometimes in the misty predawn, to deposit replacements such as "Never Come Morning," "Perfect Health" and "The Black Ice."

"I make a point to leave people alone while they browse," said Susan Dworski, a graphic designer, writer and jewelry maker. "I do hear conversations at the box, but I also see loners arriving with books and taking them, rather covertly, it seems to me. I think perhaps folks wonder if they're stealing somehow, or fear being caught on 'Candid Camera.' "

She relishes seeing which books appear or disappear, and how rapidly. "It's not unlike the excitement of raising chickens and going out each morning to the coop to see which hens have laid warm eggs, hidden in the straw," Dworski said.

Aware that most people do not stroll around the neighborhood with a spare book in hand, she adapted the sign to read: "Take one now. Leave one later."

One recent Saturday morning, Fiona Sassoon, 10, picked up a kids mystery and the Roald Dahl classic "Matilda" at the Dworskis' library. She had read about the Little Free Library movement online at school. She and her parents, Tim and Dawn, contributed a few books — some "Fancy Nancy" picture books, "Ramona the Pest" and "The Indian in the Cupboard."

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Many library custodians get creative, designing boxes shaped like beehives or roosters. Others have used plywood previously painted by artists and birch bark from the woods near their homes. They have converted mailboxes and newsstands.

One library stands at the end of a boat dock on Honey Bee Island, one of the Thousand Islands along the St. Lawrence River, which separates New York state from Ontario, Canada. Bol knows of a man who travels with his library in his RV and mounts it on the bumper when he settles in for the night at a park. In New Orleans, volunteers built 10 libraries using materials salvaged from the Hurricane Katrina cleanup.

The indie band Foster the People, through its philanthropic organization Foster the Future, plans a day for volunteers to build little libraries in Venice on Saturday. So far, more than 170 people have signed up.

For those stewards who are hammer-averse, Bol builds models out of reclaimed wood that cost $250 to $1,000. He also makes "Amish shed" kits with a sloped roof and "paint your own" barns.

"We have been told we bring books out to dance for the community," said Bol, 56, executive director. After two years of getting the enterprise underway with limited resources, he and Brooks, 64, recently started paying themselves and eight employees modest salaries.

In the Central Valley, home builder Lennar Corp.has put little libraries in its subdivisions in Fresno, Hanford and Clovis. Susan Wilke, vice president of sales and marketing, commissioned Bol to build book repositories painted with rural and small-town California scenes, featuring poppies, barns, dairy cows, horses and a woman with a watering can.

She views the libraries as a selling point. "People are needing interaction," Wilke said. "They never meet their neighbors. This provides an excuse for people to meet and be nice."

That was certainly the case for Beggs and his wife, actress Mitzi Hoag. They so enjoyed making new friendships that they decided to hold an open house. Beggs posted a small invitation on the library, and, on the last Friday in May, they welcomed half a dozen neighbors who drank wine, ate chips with dips and chatted until 11 p.m.

Beggs and Hoag intend to make it a monthly tradition.

"I find the whole thing quite gratifying," Beggs said.

One of Beggs' new friends is Muriithi Alafia, who discovered the Little Free Library in April while walking his Akita. On his next visit, Alafia left a Sunset book about building fences and walls and took a copy of a book about meditation, "Wherever You Go, There You Are." Beggs came out and introduced himself. Before long, they were talking about Sherlock Holmes.

At the open house in May, Alafia traded phone numbers with another neighbor, a studio musician. They now walk their dogs and play music together, and share family stories.

"This little library is a beautiful thing," Alafia said.

Library owners say they keep a close watch for inappropriate titles. So far, Beggs has been flustered by only one: "Porn for Women." When he and Hoag took a closer look, they realized it was a spoof — photos of good-looking men doing housework and offering to fix camomile tea. Beggs left it in the Little Free Library. Hoag took it for herself.

martha.groves@latimes.com

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