Trouble has infiltrated Carrboro—at least the Little Free Library on Shelton Street. On a curb, nailed to a post, a box no bigger than a 1999 eMac contained 21 books including Trouble for Lucy, Junebug in Trouble and Trouble's Child.
Like Junebug, public libraries are in trouble. When governments inflict budget cuts, libraries are among the first to be escorted to the guillotine. eBooks and online resources—The Digital Public Library of America has archived 5.3 million items—have made the act of going into a hushed, musty building to borrow a physical copy of a book quite quaint, like sending a telegram or dialing a rotary phone.
Enter the Little Free Library movement, which started in Wisconsin in 2009. The idea is simple: Build a small box modeled after a schoolhouse. Fill it with books. Take a book. Give a book. In the past four years, these miniature roadside libraries have popped up in neighborhoods worldwide; an estimated 12,000 will have been built by next month.
Based on information from the Little Free Library website, I wandered the Triangle ready to swap books. Wake Forest was a bust. No library exists at the Caddell Woods clubhouse. But in Carrboro, I pushed trouble aside and scored a copy of The Gnostic Gospels (being a former Catholic, I want to know why Mary Magdalene's account was omitted from the Bible). Since Carrboro is home to a film festival, I deposited the first edition of Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen.
Onto Garner and 1505 Meadowbrook Drive, where the the library was supposed to be in the front yard in a refurbished circuit box. Sadly, it was nowhere to be found. Library steward Tabitha Underwood, who oversaw the library, told me she had packed it up because she is moving to Missouri, where she'll restart it in her new neighborhood.
Initially, her neighbors felt unsure about the library, she said. "I put thrift store books in there at first," Underwood said. "And no one used it. But then I thought about what I put in there, and then people did."
Curation is key. The little library at 2408 Prince St. in Durham resembles a hip independent bookshop: kids' classics; Martin Amis' The Information, a scathing critique of the literary world; a Dave Eggers' anthology Best American Non-Required Reading; and Michael Chabon's novel, Telegraph Avenue.
I could have tossed in Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease, but considering the library's hip tomes, that felt chintzy. So I exchanged my hardback copy of House of Stone, a melancholy memoir by the late journalist Anthony Shadid, for the hilarious Sixty Stories by Donald Barthleme, a journalist-turned-flash-fiction-writer.
At the library at Endeavor Charter School in Raleigh, I considered handing over a copy of This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Then I figured the teachers would rather not explain its many references to culos and sucios, putas and pendejos. So I nabbed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and donated Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock 'n' Roll, whose references to culos and sucios, putas and pendejos are disguised as songs about back door men and the desire for a little sugar in your bowl.
I circled back to my neighborhood, Lakewood, in Durham. I had passed the box at 1808 Lakewood Ave. countless times, but always from the south side of the street; there are no sidewalks on the north side. Inside the modest box awaited a very eclectic selection: a geography textbook Exploring Our World, Bowling Alone and Agua, Salud and Derechos Humanos.
I exchanged Ray Bradbury's classic The Illustrated Man, which explores questions facing mankind through science fiction, for Paul Brunton's The Quest of Overself, which delves into questions facing mankind through tripped-out Indian psycho-spiritual analysis.
The prose is practically impenetrable: "Whoever experiences a single hour of such supramundane lucidity will become peacefully aware of the profound meaning behind the cryptic yet sublime expression which even now lingers on the mutilated face of Egypt's Sphinx."
Hmm ... I believe I'll return it for the geography book.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Free the books and your mind will follow."