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Little Free Library phenomenon brings neighbors together

FORT WORTH -- A pair of kites have taken up residence in Barbara and Paul Thomas' front yard, but the raptors aren't nesting in the little red house on a pole by the road.

That's a library.

Stuffed with about 30 books, ranging from novels like Cold Mountain and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to children's titles such as There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, the pint-size free library has become a connection point for books and people in the Turtle Creek Ranch neighborhood in north Fort Worth.

Crafted by Paul Thomas, the couple's roadside repository sports a shingle roof with metal trim, a plexiglass door with a magnetic fastener and a sign denoting its official status as Little Free Library No. 1,602. It went up on Mother's Day and is dedicated to Alice Margaret Selm, Barbara's book-loving mom.

"The neighborhood kids have gone crazy over it," Barbara Thomas said. "One man brings his godkids on a golf cart. Our dog starts to bark and I open the door and there they are. It's fabulous. It's forming a community."

And new communities of bibliophiles are turning another page every day.

Starting with a lone outpost in Hudson, Wis., the Little Free Library movement has snowballed into a feel-good national phenomenon that packs literacy, neighborhood bonding, civic pride and artistic creativity into one tidy package.

"It's a magic box with books," said Todd Bol, who launched the concept with a one-room schoolhouse model in late 2009 created in memory of his mother.

Bol's neighbors loved it, and when he told his friend Rick Brooks, they decided to try a few more in Madison, Wis., where Brooks lives.Things took off last year when the two founders' nonprofit group won a competition in Chicago and garnered notice on public radio, which led to news stories and buzz for its website,

Now more than 2,500 whimsical libraries are open in yards, parks, businesses, schools and even a mobile RV-based branch out of Austin.

Each steward, as Bol calls his library hosts, pays $25 to the nonprofit for a sign and a number. Little Free Library's website features a locator map for the branches. It also has plans for building your own and sells models constructed by various support groups, including prison inmates in Wisconsin.

There are libraries modeled after everything from log cabins to Quonset huts to telephone booths. Many are adorned with creative artwork, while others are simple weatherproof boxes. Most offer a grab bag of books, but some specialize in topics like education or conservation.

"People do the darnedest things. We have one that's only accessible by boat. We have them in Rome, Ghana and Australia. There's even one attached to a medieval bridge in Germany," said Bol, 56, who clearly enjoys his "17-hour days" running the grassroots enterprise.

Bol and Brooks, who have backgrounds in international business development, originally just wanted to surpass the 2,509 libraries that philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built (including one in Fort Worth).

They thought they could pull it off by 2014, but the record is going down this week, Bol said. "We're going to shoot a rocket way past that."

There are 10 book exchanges in Texas, but reams more are in the works, he said. "We've sent 25 or 30 to Texas in the last month."

Friends Zack Shlachter and Jim Peipert have one ready to put up near a coffee shop and restaurant on Magnolia Street in Fort Worth.

"It's a fabulous idea. We hope the idea catches on and other people steal it," Peipert said.

In tiny Windthorst, about 25 miles south of Wichita Falls, a dairy-cow-themed library has been such a hit that an "annex" has been set up inside Andy Bloom's veterinary clinic, said his wife, Carrie.

"We got so many donated books we had to put up two 6-foot shelves in the clinic," she said, adding that her kids are proudly stamping each book with a custom logo.

"My favorite part is seeing what people have left us. I'm reading all kinds of new books. Our little community doesn't have a library, and it has been just wonderful. Everywhere I go, people are bringing it up."

Avid reader Cherlyn Haynes of Garland enjoys watching the give-and-take at her family's little lending center.

"People are stocking it up. We have kids and adults stopping all the time," Haynes said. "I like the idea of it being a community thing." She says that she was running out of room for books in her small home and that paying them forward is more satisfying than selling them.

"I just love seeing them move through here. There's nothing but goodness for the books," she said.

Whitney Wolf of Dallas says her library is so popular that neighborhood mothers have established a rule that if kids take a book, they have to replace it with one.

"I love books; I don't think people can have enough books," Wolf said. "People love it. They stop to chat even if they don't get a book."

Gregg Burger of Leander built one out of $10 worth of scrap materials.

"It's not the nicest one, but it has four walls and roof -- it works," he said. "We're out in the country, and it's doing pretty good."

The library has morphed into a community co-op of sorts, with people using the spot to give away extra garden produce, Burger said. "That's OK, as long as they don't start leaving old tires."

El Paso elementary school librarian Lisa Lopez has one outside and another inside at her school.

"It's generated a lot of excitement about reading. Kids love it, but adults are using it, too," she said, noting that other librarians plan to install them. "My goal is to spread them across El Paso."

Linda Prout of New Orleans got one for her husband and held a grand opening for her neighbors. Bol donated one for a contest in the city, and a neighborhood grant resulted in 10 more being built out of Hurricane Katrina debris. Schoolkids are working on others decorated with Mardi Gras beads.

"Ours stays busy all the time. We've met neighbors that we didn't know for 30 years," Prout said.

Bol believes "the human connection" is the real magic of the little boxes.

"People tell us all the time that they've met more people in a week than they have in a lifetime," he said.

"If I meet a woman on the street and say, 'Hi,' she would walk away thinking it must be something about sex or money. If I meet that same woman at a Little Free Library, we could talk about books, kids, family or what she likes to read. It's a touchstone and that's cool."

Efforts are under way to open branches in every town in Minnesota and to set up 200 in Los Angeles and 100 in San Antonio. A couple who lost their son four years ago celebrated his 29th birthday in May by giving 29 libraries to Milwaukee, Bol said.

He said a Boy Scout troop in Minnesota is building 10. Then he paused for second.

"My question is, What are all those Boy Scouts in Texas doing?"

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