Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Those “Little Free Libraries” that dot my neighborhood need serious revamping.

Too many offer what is just too damn narrow a selection of books that match my taste. And if that reading material weren’t free, I’d demand a refund!

I kid, because I love them. Little Free Libraries have livened up many a walk — particularly during the Covid lockdown. And the free exchanges of good writing have added a new option in the 600-year history of the printed book: Though many more titles today get published, hardback books are out of fashion. And old-timers seeking to declutter struggle to unload their discards.

The trademarked Little Free Library, based in St. Paul, Minn., has 150,000 registered boxes in 120 countries, having served 300 million books since its founding in 2009. More than 50 are up in Arlington, but the local map doesn’t include dozens I’ve passed on my walks—probably because the owner didn’t register as a chartered steward.

The group’s website explains how to acquire (or build), situate and maintain an inviting and element-proof box and build community support.

A favorite on Yorktown Blvd. captures the spirit by posting a friendly sign: “Got books! Give Some. Get Some.” The boxes lend intimacy to a neighborhood.

Though many of us go through life with a guilt-inducing stack of unread volumes on our nightstands, I welcome the serendipitous spotting of a new possibility. (I also feel a tinge of guilt while walking away with a book in the manner of a thief.) There’s an anarchistic adventure in borrowing or contributing books with no one keeping inventory.

I’ve filled gaps in my literary diet by grabbing aging copies of classic novels by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Hardy, Upton Sinclair and Willa Cather.  In one case, Simon Schama’s intimidating “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution,” I gave it a second chance after having failed to penetrate it back in 1989.

Some of my borrowings are well-thumbed paperbacks whose yellowed pages give off that nostalgic musty smell. One John O’Hara volume is literally falling apart, breaking my heart and forcing me to toss loose pages once I’ve read them.  And sometimes, when browsing at a box, I spot a title suitable for mailing to a friend who’d appreciate my “expensive” gift.

I don’t literally resent the proprietors of Little Free Libraries whose tastes run different from my own. But I notice, which helps me decide which are worth revisiting.

Some focus on children’s literature and school workbooks. Some lean toward cooking, home repair or schlock thrillers. And some are packed with stuff that I, as a part-time sexist, typecast as “chick lit.”

But remember: most book buyers these days are female. And if you’ve checked best-seller lists lately, an inhabitant of multiple slots is romance writer Colleen Hoover. She began as a self-published author but went on to sell 20 million books. Someday, on a morning walk, I might open a Free Little Library door and try one.


Boy Hero Department: The refurbished home on 6400 block of N. 24th St. is nearly ready for sale. It was May 4 a year ago that it burned.

Neighbor Whitney Kozakowski and sons Owen and Sam were walking home from Tuckahoe Elementary when Owen exclaimed, “The house is smokey. Why?” At first the mom suspected a backyard fire pit. But her son’s question prompted her to look closely. “I could barely see what looked like smoke coming out from under the living room window, and the roof.” She knocked on the door (no one home) and called 911. Within about three minutes, Arlington police officers on motorcycles arrived to interview her, followed shortly by fire engines. She and the boys watched them in action from their own yard.

“The blaze was apparently started by a power strip in the basement,” she says. “And from what the fire department reported to the owners, if the department had arrived much later, the entire house would have been destroyed.”