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Take A Book, Leave A Book: The Story Of State College's Little Free Library

by on April 15, 2014 6:30 AM

On the corner of Ridge Ave. and Burrowes Street in State College, a small wooden box in the shape of an A-frame house sits atop a post on the front lawn, near of an old-fashioned, English cottage.

Fastened to the side of the box is a small clock, adorned with Roman numerals. Scrabble tiles spelling out the phrase "Always time to read" used to hang above the dysfunctional time piece, but have since fallen and withered away. The paint, once brilliant shades of gold and blue, has been rendered pale and muted by the sting of nature's elements.

However, like any good piece of literature, the most important part is what's on the inside. Upon opening the glass door, you'll find close to 50 books lining the 20" by 18" frame, stacked neatly upon each other like sardines in a tin can. Above the door, right around eye level, a wooden plaque engraved with three words tells the whole story - Little Free Library.

Alexandra Broyles and her husband Jim have lived in their home on the corner of Ridge Ave. and Burrowes Street for the last eight years. After spending 21 years in New York, where Jim worked for the state university system and Alexandra held jobs at libraries, publishers, and various other outlets (so long as it had "something to do with the printed word"), the couple decided to move to Pennsylvania in 2000, eventually settling in Penns Valley. Years later, Jim was hired as an administrator at Penn State, a position he held for 10 years.

Two years ago, while browsing Pinterest, a popular social media site that curates different projects and ideas based on your interests, Broyles came across what looked to be a replica of a red schoolhouse, filled to the brim with books. Curious, she started searching the web for more information, and eventually found the homepage of Little Free Library.

"I thought it was just the cutest thing," says Broyles. "I didn't know anything about it, or how it works, so I just followed the trail, googling it and so forth. I wrote to them, and I said, 'I'm interested. Can you tell me more about it?', and three days later I got this big package in the mail with all this information, and the little sign that says 'take a book, leave a book.' Now I thought: 'I have to do this thing.'"

And so she did. After years of working for libraries and volunteering with AAUW of State College at the group's annual Used Book Sale, Broyles had built an extensive collection -- more than enough to fill a few bookshelves, let alone an over-sized birdhouse. Once they acquired blueprints from the website, Alexandra and Jim set out to build the library, making every day trips to Lowe's Home Improvement to pick out the wood and swatches of paint.

"I just liked that little box," says Broyles, remembering the inspiration to build her own Little Free Library. "It just thought it was so cute, with the little door and everything."

In 2009, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a model of a one room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher who loved reading. In the hope of keeping his mother's spirit alive, he filled it with books, and planted it on a post in his front yard for all to see. Neighbors and friends adored the idea, and soon enough, he was building more and giving them away.

Inspired by Andrew Carnegie's support of 2,509 free public libraries around the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Bol and his partner Rick Brooks set out on a mission to encourage book exchanges as a way to bring communities together. According to the organization's website, by January 2014 the total number of registered Little Free Libraries around the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 15,000, with thousands more being built.

"The neighborhood just really likes it," says Broyles. "It really does exactly what it's supposed to do. Books just keep turning over. If you're a reader or a book lover, it's a really great thing."

With a birds-eye view of the library from inside her living room, Broyles says she loves seeing people of all ages stop by and check out the inventory. She recalls a time when neighbors from across the street had grandchildren visiting, and walked over to the library for a quick peek. The kids loved it so much that before their next visit, her neighbor went out and bought new books to put in the library for the kids to find.

"Sometimes in the warmer weather when the windows are open, I can hear people standing out there, talking about books," says Broyles, looking over her shoulder through the large single-hung windows, pointing to the library past a tangle of bushes. "Right before you came, there was a woman and a baby in a stroller, and she was getting books out. It's nice."

A self-professed book lover in her own right, Broyles says her passion for reading began as a child. She points to Charles Dickens as one of her favorite authors, but as far her favorite book? Too tough to answer, she says. She loves them all - classic writers, modern writers, genres of all kinds -- so having her own library outside her front door is a dream come true.

"It's wonderful," says Broyles. "I can't think of another word other than it's satisfying. Sometimes if I'm desperate I'll go and see if there's anything out there."

Even more astounding than her constantly changing book collection is the support from the community. Through football seasons, arts festivals, the end of the school year, the beginning of the school year, Broyles says she's never had any problems with vandalism. In fact, she's never heard a negative thing about it from anyone. One neighbor liked it so much, she built one of her own when she moved to Virginia.

"Sometimes I pull my car out of the driveway and I'll see a big mess, a big jumbled mess, and I think to myself, 'when I come home from the grocery store, I need to straighten that thing out," says Broyles. "But by the time I come home, it's all straightened out. Somebody else in the neighborhood fixed it."

Sadly, the Broyles family will only have a few more weeks to enjoy their creation. Alexandra and Jim are set to move to Maryland at the end of the month, looking to be closer to their two sons and two grandchildren, Zoe, age 8 and Ellie, age 6.

Through their real estate agent, Broyles asked if the new homeowners wanted the library, because if not, they'll take it down before they move.

Their response? We'll take it.

"It's nice to know that it's such a part of the neighborhood that it will change hands with a new steward," says Broyle. "Part of what Little Free Library does is spread the word. You don't want to be the only one with one."

In their new home, located in a historical district that boasts strict housing standards, Broyles says it might be tough to build another library. But that's not going to stop her from trying.

"We won't have a front lawn like this -- we're right on the city street," she says. "So what I plan to do is after I move and we get settled, I'll go to the city and find out if something works. I'd like to continue to do it."

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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