Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Little Library

I always respond personally to the customer complaints we receive at Fairyland. We learn a lot from our guests, and we often translate their suggestions into reality.

But a note we received last week included a slew of complaints, one of which really touched a nerve. I reproduce it here verbatim:

“You should have a really cool candy shop where the library is who wants to read a book in Fairyland.”

The guest was referring to our reading room, lovingly curated by Oakland public librarians. It’s a sweet, quiet space where a kid can sit on an adult’s lap or on a giant stuffed bear and enjoy the pleasures of books and reading.
The Children’s Fairyland Reading Room offers kids and parents a chance to relax and enjoy books. 

I wrote back to our customer that we wouldn’t be transforming our reading room to a candy shop anytime soon.

I’ve been a lover of libraries ever since I was a kid. In fact, I ended up at Fairyland partly because of my volunteer involvement for years in the area of children’s literacy. I chaired Oakland’s library advisory commission, and led the effort to raise money for the Montclair Branch’s furniture after its expansion many years ago.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered what’s known as a Little Free Library on my walk to work.

According to an Oakland Magazine article from 2014, “the Little Free Library movement started in Hudson, Wis., in 2010, when local Todd Bol built a tiny wooden schoolhouse on his front lawn as a tribute to his mother. Bol filled the schoolhouse with books and encouraged neighbors to borrow any that captured their fancy. The idea soon spread throughout the city, as other booklovers began erecting their own little free libraries. Soon, it had spread throughout the state, the country, and the world.”

There is so much to love about this concept.

“My” little library is not particularly attractive; it’s just one shelf of a battered metal bookcase. 
A Little Free Library in the Adams Point neighborhood in Oakland, where books come and go on a daily basis.

But because my Adams Point neighborhood in Oakland is the most densely populated area in Alameda County, and possibly one of the most diverse – seniors, young families, single workers –I wasn’t surprised at the variety of the books that I observed over a two-week period. I photographed the library every day to see if I could determine any trends, or get to know my community a little better. I looked forward to the constant ebb and flow of books as my neighbors dropped books off and picked them up.

Here are some of my observations:

First, my neighbors are interested in food and travel. During those two weeks I saw “The Chowhound’s Guide,” “The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,” “The Chef Manager,” “Celebrating a Healthy Harvest,” “Buying a Home in France,” “Cocktails,” “Eat Smart in Turkey,” and “Day Trips from New Orleans.” And, perhaps not surprisingly, “As Is: Confessions of a True Fatty.”

They’re a brainy bunch as well: “Symbolic Interactionism,” “The Power of Focusing,” “What’s Going On: How the Brain and Mind Develop,” “Head to Head: the Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America,” “Classics of Western Thought: Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation.”

Self-improvement was represented by “Pay it Down!: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day,” “New Seeds of Contemplation,” “Slow Down to See the World,” “Quality Before Design.”

Someone was into photography, based on a few books on the subject plus premium photographic paper. Another was a sports fan: I saw one book about Satchel Paige, and another about the Mets.

And of course, there was fiction. Suspense thrillers by Grisham, plays by Bertolt Brecht, crime novels by Patricia Cornwell; sci-fi, crime and historical fiction.

A  Little Free Library near Piedmont Avenue.

I was amazed by how often the little library would be nearly bare one day and filled to overflowing the next. There’s a lot of traffic on the street, and the library is clearly used by many. One surprise to me was the fact that Carson McCullers’s novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” ranked 17th on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, was left to languish for more than a few days before it was snapped up.

My little library makes me smile. It makes me feel like I live in a community of people who have a wide range of interests, who like to share, and who like to read. 

A friend recently gave me a wonderful novel based on “orphan trains,” a welfare program that from 1854 to 1929 transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the U.S. to foster homes in rural areas of the Midwest. She didn’t expect to get it back. I donated it to the little library, and it was gone the next day. I have to admit that it felt good to finally be a participant in my neighborhood’s own special library.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I don’t think I’m alone in preferring a kind of library – any kind of library, no matter how small – to a candy shop.

-- C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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