WORD ON THE STREET: LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES OFFER NEIGHBORHOOD BOOK EXCHANGE

Artist David Wegman and Green Parrot Bar co-owner John Vagnoni unveil the bar’s LIttle Free Library box at 601 Whitehead St. CONTRIBUTED

By Nancy Klingener

Little Free Libraries feel like an idea that’s been around forever. They have, in a sense — coffee shops, hospital waiting rooms and other public spaces have always had book exchanges. It just makes sense. Books are rarely consumed multiple times by the same person. And they can be pricey, especially for avid readers.

The Little Free Library as we know it today — a wooden box of books registered with a national organization that puts it on a map — has been around since 2009. According to the Little Free Library Association — the nonprofit that registers sites and maintains the online map — they started in Wisconsin and there are now more than 150,000 registered.

There are several throughout the Keys, despite our (relative) abundance of bookstores and of course five Monroe County Public Library branches, with an additional two new Lending Machines (more on that later). It’s a service to those who can’t make it to the public library, can’t get a library card for some reason, and for visitors to the island chain.

John Vagnoni installed the Little Free Library at the Green Parrot Bar in 2014. It was at the suggestion of his son Nick, a professor of writing at Florida International University. Vagnoni started out stocking the library himself, but soon found users providing donations, sometimes so many that the surplus books are stored behind the bar until there’s room on the shelf.

One of Vagnoni’s first moves with the library was to call in the Parrot’s “artist-in-residence” Dave Wegman to create the box, which hangs off the wall outside the back bar on Whitehead Street.

“As usual, he was creatively off to the races, all fabricated in his studio at Tony’s Chicken Preserve on Mickens Lane,” Vagnoni said. “Wegman was also the one that came up with the brilliant idea for the trompe l’oeil bookshelves with some of his whimsical if-you-know-you-know made-up titles and authors, year after year gathering more zany suggestions for the spines from staff and patrons.”

He said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Locals love it as a resource, as you would use a regular library or as a supplement to bookstore or website shopping,” he said. “And tourists love it, either because they may have seen one in their hometown, or conversely because they’ve never seen anything like it before, or maybe just because they forgot to pack a book in their suitcase.”

Old newspaper boxes were turned into Little Free Libraries “sometime after 2018” when the local daily newspaper was sold. Several boxes were “upcycled” into Little Free Libraries. Chris Morgan — whose day job is with the Monroe County Public Library — picked up two in Marathon, gave one to a local charter school and set one up at the Coral Isles Church at mile marker 90 in Tavernier.

“When it first started, I stocked most of the books. Now, it seems I have regular users and donors. I check weekly for the condition of the books,” she said. “The book selection for adults varies but mostly fiction with some non-fiction. We get a nice selection of kids books – chapter books, picture books and board books.”

Susan Eanes started her Little Free Library at 681 West Indies Dr. on Ramrod Key in 2020.

“It was during COVID and I couldn’t celebrate how I wanted to, so I decided to give myself a present instead. I’d wanted one for a long time and this seemed like the right moment,” she said.

Her Little Free Library is made from materials left by Hurricane Irma.

“My neighbors often tell me how much they appreciate it. It seems to be getting good usage and people have been leaving books as well as taking them,” although she doesn’t ask them to, she said. She stocks mostly fiction and finds mysteries and spy novels are the most popular.

“Some of my snowbird neighbors have also very generously donated books when they leave for the summer,” she said.

Also in 2020, a local book club called the Key West Book Sisters started their Little Free Library, which is located in front of the Womankind clinic at 1511 Truman Ave. in Key West.

“A lot of our books come from our personal libraries and are books we enjoyed ourselves. We’ve also acquired books from friends, the library book sale or yard sales,” said Lesa McComas, one of the book club’s members.

She said the Little Free Library’s location means it gets a lot of exposure, especially to families with young children.

“We have a hard time keeping children’s books in stock. We also have trouble getting enough Spanish language books to meet the demand,” she said. “We would love contributions from the community. I think a lot of LFLs are self-sustaining, in the sense that the people who use them contribute as many books as they take out. Ours really is not, which is a good thing in the sense that it means we are getting books into the hands of a lot of people who may not otherwise have access to reading material. But it does make it more of a challenge for us to keep it full.”

Little Free Libraries are wonderful as sources for the serendipitous find, the book you didn’t know you needed. No library card required, no return date, no fee if the book never comes back.

Public libraries, of course, are also free and the Monroe County Public Library does not charge overdue fines. (They do expect you to pay up if you don’t give the book back.) The branches also have books that were donated or are discarded from the library collection — they are usually available at heavily discounted prices, to benefit the Friends of the Library groups that support each branch. And some branches have shelves where the books are free — just ask at the desk.

One of the best qualities of the Little Free Libraries is that they’re accessible at times and places that a public library branch is closed. The Monroe County Public Library is working on addressing that, with after-hours Pickup Lockers in each region of the Keys and two Lending Machines where you can get books and DVDs (almost) any time. These are basically vending machines for books and DVDs — thus the name. With a library card, you can get anything that’s in the machine, as well as return any Monroe County Public Library item to the machines. The two Lending machines are located at:

  • The Murray Nelson Government Center, 102050 Overseas Highway, Key Largo — accessible 24/7
  • Bernstein Park, 6751 Fifth St., Stock Island — accessible from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Bernstein Park is also the site of the Pickup Locker for the Lower Keys; the others are outside of the Marathon and Key Largo library branches.

To find out more about Little Free Libraries and see the map of their locations, go to littlefreelibrary.org. To find out more about the Monroe County Public Library, including the Lending Machines, go to keyslibraries.org or email [email protected].

Vagnoni said he’s been delighted to see the strong, positive response to the Parrot’s Little Free Library, and that in his opinion, communities are strengthened by books and access to them.

“Keep on reading, fight the power, read banned books, encourage your kids to do the same, and keep on donating. We are so pleased that people continue to treat this as a neighborhood resource,” he said. “And, I might add, we love the seeming incongruity of having a library located on the back porch of a saloon.”