A Little Free Library in Berkeley, on Yolo Avenue near Milvia, one of at least 22 in the city. Photo: Colleen Neff

By Colleen Neff

What are these structures popping up along the sidewalks of Berkeley? Big birdhouses? Doll houses? Or are they homes small enough to actually be affordable in this crazy real-estate market? Nope. None of the above. They are actually part of a worldwide phenomenon called Little Free Libraries.

Berkeley now has over 20 of these charming mini-libraries that have become neighborhood meeting spots for book lovers of all ages. The idea is simple: take a book, return a book.

This library is the newest one the author has seen. It went up a couple of months ago on Walnut Street across from the tennis courts at Live Oak Park near Rose Street. Photo: Colleen Neff

It all started in 2009 in Wisconsin when Todd Bol built a small replica of a one-room schoolhouse to honor his mother who had been teacher. It was set on a post outside his home and filled with books that were free to passers-by, who then returned them or brought other books to share.

The idea grew, and Bol partnered with Rick Brooks soon after to launch the Little Free Library non-profit. An early goal was to build more little libraries than Andrew Carnegie’s 2,509 real libraries constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That number was easily surpassed. There are more than 18,000 Little Libraries officially registered on a world map on the group’s website, where you can zoom in on your neighborhood to see where the closest one to you might be.

The website also has an assortment of different makes and models of libraries you can order, but, this being Berkeley, we are lucky to have lots of interesting and unusual designs to house books.

This library is made from an old wine box and is on Sonoma Avenue near Neilson. Photo: Colleen Neff

Who can resist the library with a living roof that is near several community gardens on Santa Fe Avenue? Or the tall, thin, three-shelved box lit up with a solar panel on The Arlington? Or the earliest Little Library in town up on Santa Barbara near Marin (registered #1449), with the small notebook to sign out your books? Or the one on Sonoma near Neilsen that is made from a wooden wine crate? Each library has its charms — and its steward, as the owners and caretakers of Little Libraries are called.

One of the sweetest in town is in the front yard of Linda Davis on Parker Street. Complete with a miniature banner on top that announces a new poem of the day inside and a homemade curtain that decorates the front window, this library has been “a real neighborhood project”, says Ms. Davis. The dedication ceremony in November of 2013 included tea, cookies and lots of folks from the block who pitched in with the construction.

“Children’s books are the hardest to keep stocked in the library,” said Davis. “They just fly out the door!”

Caring for her library has not been without its difficulties and heartbreak, however, as the Little Library has had a couple of thefts of the entire contents. Davis’ neighbors Barbara Shayesteh and Chris Witt speculate that someone was trying to re-sell the books to a second-hand store. Hoping to alert stores and potential buyers, each book is now stamped with red ink on the inside cover: “Always a gift; Never for sale, This book is from a Little Free Library.”

So grab a book you no longer need and head out for a walk to your nearest Little Free Library to see if there’s something there you might want to borrow.

I just noticed a brand new Little Library last week on Walnut Street near Live Oak Park that is registered as #18,153. That’s quite a success story that all started with six simple words: “Take a book, return a book.”

This library is on Francisco Street, about a block up from San Pablo Avenue. Photo: Colleen Neff
This library is on Parker Street. From left to right: Barbara Shayesteh, library steward Linda Davis, and Chris Witt. Photo: Colleen Neff
A Little Library with a living roof of succulents on Peralta near Hopkins, across from and next to some community gardens. Photo: Colleen Neff
This library, with a solar collector for the lights inside, is on The Arlington in Berkeley just before you reach Kensington. Photo: Colleen Neff
This library, with its little notepad and pencil, is the first Little Library Neff saw in Berkeley years ago. It is on the corner of Marin and Santa Barbara avenues. Photo: Colleen Neff
This library is on Eunice Avenue near Arch. The library owner/steward was the late Vera Bomse (she died in February but loved her library!). The house has since been sold but the library remains. Photo: Colleen Neff
This library is on Shattuck Avenue where Walnut Street ends, and belongs to the author, Colleen Neff. Photo: Colleen Neff

Colleen Neff will be leading a walking tour for the Berkeley Path Wanderers of some of the Little Free Libraries mentioned in this article. It will be on Saturday Jan. 10, 2015 at 10:00 .a.m. Visit the Berkeley Path Wanderers website for details as the date approaches.

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