Free Little Libraries

This Little Free Library on Columbus Street in El Granada is one of many erected around the coast. Photo courtesy Katie Sanborn

My mother began to experience reading withdrawal last week as her stack of library books diminished and the closure of the public library because of the COVID-19 pandemic reverberated like a fortress door clanging shut. She is never without a book, whether she’s waiting at a doctor’s office or in my driveway to take me to the airport. A retired schoolteacher and reading specialist, she also used to read to preschoolers at Ink Spell Books in Half Moon Bay as “Miss Barbara.” Like Thomas Jefferson, Barbara Harp cannot live without books.

The specter of my mother without a book to read sent shivers down my spine, and I scurried home to ransack my own library for her. I also mentioned this crisis to a couple of friends, who looked at their collections and offered to share. Meanwhile, my mother discovered that her across-the-street neighbor, another avid reader of her generation, was in similar straits, having finished her own stack of library books. They share an affinity for at least one common genre, and they made a decision. Defying their respective daughters’ orders to stay at home, they swapped their overdue library books in the middle of Vallejo Street — at arm’s length, or approximately six feet.

“We appreciate there are no overdue fines,” my mother said. “You can only look so far into what you have on your library shelves, and you (can) look to those Little Free Libraries. If I’ve finished what I have, it’s nice to have the security that someone else reads, too, and there will be something there until I can get to the library again.”

Other Coastsiders are also finding themselves with a shrinking collection of reading material. Not everyone wants to read books on an e-reader, though you can check out library books electronically. There is something comforting about the tactile experience of a book on paper.

Cindi Whittemore, owner of Ink Spell Books, has kept the store open by selling from a counter at the front door — through contactless transactions — books, games and puzzles that customers select by pointing through the window. “Books can take you places when you can’t go anywhere. That’s what we need now. Whether it’s Narnia or Hogwarts or wherever you want to go, it’s an escape from our reality. … Or get a book on learning to sew and help make the [face] masks. Or learn to watercolor. All that stuff you’ve always meant to do.”

The Little Free Library book boxes that some residents have planted in their front yards have also taken on new importance these days. Right after the stay-at-home order came through, Teri Butler, of Half Moon Bay, posted to Nextdoor that she had refreshed her book box and added some CDs and movies. “Now I’ll go in there and it’s looking empty, and then it’s full. Neighbors are filling it. People are really using it like a library,” Butler said. In response to her Nextdoor post, one writer expressed concern about sanitation. “So I did wipe down all the books,” she said. “And I do have a canister of wipes in my book box now. So if people feel compelled, they can wipe down (the books before taking them). I want people to be safe.”

Lisa and Steve Fahrbach, of El Granada, who established their book box a couple of years ago, said they have seen an increase in traffic. “A lot of people have been coming to our Little Free Library. People say they have run out of books, or they need to bring a book to a neighbor,” Lisa said. Steve has added books to the collection that he picked up during business trips. “Why have single-use books?” he said. This weekend, they plan to add more books as well as some puzzles and games. Lisa encourages people to bring sanitizer wipes to wipe down books they borrow and books they add to the library.

El Granadan Dave Olson, who said he reads one fat book a week, said there seems to be fewer books in circulation in his book box, maybe because of anxiety about the virus and sanitation. Meanwhile, having finished his own stack of library books on Monday, Olson, a member of the Midcoast Community Council, visited a friend — “briefly,” he assured me — to swap.

Ink Spell’s Whittemore so far has been able to continue to obtain books from the supply chain. “So far, the book pipeline — because it’s considered essential (for home schooling) — is still flowing very well,” she said. “(But) I think puzzles are going to be the next toilet paper. I can’t get them.”

For information about how to borrow e-books from the library, go to https://smcl.org/.

Sanborn began reading “Crime and Punishment” just before the pandemic clampdown. She recommends you wait until better times. Having managed to slog through that, she is gratefully cocooned in “The Hobbit.”

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