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On the Books: Little Libraries Maintain Cultural Currency

On the Books: Little Libraries Maintain Cultural Currency

by Samantha Anne Carrillo

In the nineties and early aughts, residents of most mid-sized American cities could count on the existence of a “free box.” Usually situated near a record store, college campus or community center, these free boxes—often repurposed newspaper vending machines—served as a DIY distro for mixtapes, zines, books, flyers and all manner of ephemera. It was the spot to drop your new 4AD fanzine. 

little library downtown

Downtown’s Little Library

Alongside alt.weekly personal ads, volunteer-staffed community gardens and an honest-to-goodness mail-order CD club, the free box thrived in its ’90s heyday.  In the intervening two decades, the decline and fall of the American newspaper industry has left behind more artifacts of print’s thriving past. While some abandoned newsstands still find new purpose, the free box of yore has largely evolved into the expansive, inclusive “little library” movement.

There are two subsets of little library. One is a non-profit network dedicated to spreading the craft and content of the Little Library. For example, mere yards from my doorstep, a brightly colored, three-tier example of these well-crafted, highly visible book-bearing units bears a plaque from LittleFreeLibrary.org, indicating its affiliation along with an ability to access maps for more little libraries all over Albuquerque.

The second type of little library functions in much the same way, but ascribes to a humbler DIY aesthetic and mission. The latest free, DIY library in our burg is a construction in downtown Albuquerque. Its maker, Judson Frondorf, has called Albuquerque home since the 1970s and has no intention of registering his new project, referring to it as a sort of free range experiment.

This reporter has called the Parkland Hills Neighborhood home for over a decade. From Ridgecrest proper’s toney castles to the surrounding, economically diverse dwellings, Parkland Hills is largely populated by young families and retirees. It’s a great place to locate these mini-libraries, which are a perfect gathering place for both books and living denizens of the vicinity.

idlewilde little library

Little Library Idelwilde

Each elegantly presented book box provides an unique opportunity for idea exchange, casual networking, chatting and other satisfying real-life activities we’ve let slip in the digital age. At the aforementioned three-tier library yards from my casa, modern fiction by John Grisham, Annie Proulx and Chris Bohjalian keeps company with “The Great Gatsby,” “White Fang,” and Dave Eggers’ memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” These books all have value to the community.

A few blocks away, near where Ridgecrest joins Carlisle, a two-tier library built with meticulous woodworking skill is balanced and complemented by literary diversity. Here, Dr. Seuss books and self-help titles like “Eat, Pray, Love” and “The Artist’s Way” coexist peacefully with Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Crichton novels and “Found!” and “Family Circle” magazines. A sign on both Parkland Hills little libraries proclaims a set of beliefs: “No human is illegal. Love is love. Science is real. Women’s rights are human rights. Black lives matter. Water is life. And kindness is everything.”

“Little library” maker Frondorf, a founder of the storied Alley Theatre Southwest, was also the lead singer of notable local post-punk outfit Cracks in the Sidewalk. Acknowledging this small town ID with a grin, he steers the conversation to the idea of sharing books, stressing literature’s importance in any society. His utilitarian-style Downtown library shares Frondorf’s decision not to profess overtly political themes or affiliations in the course of its work.

little library

Little Library Ridgecrest

And, for now, that work is distributing and collecting words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters composed by folks like John Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates and Vladimir Nabokov. The books in Frondorf’s collection are housed in a purple plastic storage bin with “free” and “books” stenciled in a white stylized font. Displayed casually outside one man’s house, this little library seems poised to embed itself in the cultural soil of the neighborhood.

Asked about this book business, his involvement with it, the politics that generally arise from literature and discourse and his hopes for advocating and sustaining literacy, Frondorf said, “When we were in bands, Reagan was president, and the sticker you would see is ‘Reagan hates us.’ You would wear that as a t-shirt or paint it on the back of your jacket. Politics run just under the surface.

“You should really just do these things [little libraries] because you love those things. If someone interprets those actions as a political message, then that’s a little extra—that’s good. I’m not overtly political, but I can’t help the fact that’s running just beneath the surface because I’m a thinking human being.”

To access Little Free Library’s registry and maps, visit littlefreelibrary.org. But keep your eyes peeled, too, because plenty of little libraries remain unlisted.  

Photo credit:  All little library photos by Samantha Anne Carrillo

Samantha Anne Carrillo is a nuevomexicana writer & editor, a freelance social media manager, a fourth-wave feminist and a devout situationist. Find her at facebook.com/samanthaannenm and instagram.com/samanthacarrillo.