Free Books: Little Libraries That Build Community and Save You Money

Photo: BillLongstaff

One of my earliest childhood memories is standing in a parking lot in rural New Mexico with my mother, waiting for the Bookmobile to arrive. I loved the Bookmobile, which was a former delivery truck, outfitted with bookshelves.

In pre-Internet days, the Bookmobile brought the outside world to towns too teeny to support their own libraries or bookstores. Bookmobiles still exist, often serving as a library for schools in poor neighborhoods and as a books-on-wheels service for elderly readers with mobility issues.

Alas, with all the state budget cuts, libraries across America are cutting back services or completely closing down branches. Due to soaring gas prices, mobile libraries face a financial double whammy. While some readers can still access a library via downloadable books, in many places, like on Indian reservations, the public library is also the Internet hotspot for the entire community. No library? No Internet, and no access to free books. (See also: 4 Reasons Why You Should Support Your Local Library)

Survivalists in the Post-Library Landscape

Putting aside all the amazing services and perks that public libraries provide — research material, Internet access, DVD rental, air conditioning — the big question for many people becomes: "How am I going to afford my reading habit?"

Obviously, if you’ve got the money, you can buy books.

But most library patrons are frugal readers who prefer to pay for their books with their tax dollars, not their grocery budgets. Also, many places don’t have a big enough local economy to support a bookstore. Sure, you can always buy books online. But, even one-cent books cost money to ship. And you have to pay for the Internet access that you use to download free books.

Luckily, bookworms are a plucky bunch. Around the world people are creating their own book exchanges and sharing their reading wealth with their neighbors.

Little Free Libraries

Little Free Library is a charity that started in 2010 to promote the construction of free book exchanges around the globe to promote literacy and build community. In August 2012, the Little Free Library movement surpassed Andrew Carnegie’s record total of 2,509 libraries built!

My friend Heather joined the Little Free Library as a Steward last year. A tax deductable $34.95 got her a start-up kit with all sorts of helpful information, blueprints, and instructions on how to build her own library out of salvaged supplies, book plates, a numbered metal plaque for her library, and a GPS listing on the Little Free Library global network. More importantly, Heather gets the pleasure of knowing that she’s helping to subsidize libraries in poor areas, plus the accolades of all her neighbors.

Interestingly enough, Heather’s little library isn’t cleaned out every day by book thieves or vandals. People really seem to grasp the concept that her tiny book shelf is a lending library. Heather’s library patrons are remarkably nice about returning books they have "checked out" of her little library once they are through reading them.

Community Book Banks

If an actual lending library feels too overwhelming to manage, even at a miniature scale, or you lack yard space because you live in an apartment complex, you can join forces with a local coffee shop, hair salon, or car mechanic and curate a community book bank in a reader friendly private business.

My local gym owner operates a leave-a-book/take-a-book style free reading exchange in the dressing room. Fact — the gym bookcase is actually where I get all of my trashy ladymags for free. While there is no expectation for people to actually return books to the gym, the owner and her wife make a point of keeping the shelf stocked with interesting reading material. If your local house of worship has a FREE box, you might ask if you can add a bookshelf in the same area. Books are more likely to be returned to book banks if people can make it part of their weekly routine.

Catch and Release

If you’ve ever traveled like a poor person, then you know that just about every youth hostel on the planet has a stack of random books in some corner that are free for the taking…often in more than one language. If you are a sporting type like me, you can actually track your holiday reading that you left behind in taxis, airports, and bus stops around the globe using

My friend Gwen, who lives in Germany, rides to work on a Hamburg city bus that has a built-in bookcase. (There’s some joke about German efficiency to be made from this, one that I just can’t think of right now). At any rate, that is some fine German engineering. Why Americans have not demanded bookcases on all public transportation, I have no idea, but it is just more evidence that we’re losing the empire.

International Catch and Release reading is always a treasure hunt, but it’s also one of my favorite ways of pinching pennies, (or centimes, or lepta) when I travel. I used to buy guide books, but then I discovered that small hotel managers are usually more than happy to load me up with leftover maps and guides because their bookcases are crammed with travel books left behind by previous guests.

Also, when I did my semester abroad in Florence, I packed a bunch of books that were set in Tuscany so I could create mini "book tour" walks where I’d try and track down all the literary locations I was reading about. I thought I was so clever until I arrived at school and discovered that generations of previous students had left behind multiple copies of" The Agony and the Ecstasy," "Portrait of a Lady," and anything ever written by John Ruskin on the school’s lending library shelf. Book geeks. We all think alike. Place-specific literature is just one more thing I now leave off my packing list when traveling in book-abundant areas.

Host a Book Swap

On New Year’s Day my husband and I host a book swap party and waffle extravaganza. (My husband’s waffles are legendary.) We invite all the readers in our life to come over with the good books that are taking up valuable shelf space in their homes. Everyone throws their books on the communal pile and takes what they want for free. People look forward to this party and actually "save up" their books for this event! Leftover books are donated to the Los Angeles Public Library Book Drive.

How much do you spend on your reading habit and where do you find inexpensive books?

Additional photo credit: My Roman Apartment
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Guest's picture
Suzanne Favreau

Another entertaining, well researched and well written article. I first heard about (and was intrigued by) the Little Free Library movement thanks to an article in USA Today. Thanks to Max Wong for providing more intriguing details about Little Free Libraries including the information on how to get started. There are many other wonderful suggestions in this article about how book lovers can indulge their passion without spending huge amounts of money. One of the things I like best about this author's writing is her ability to weave interesting tidbits about her own life into the fabric of the story she's crafting. I look forward to reading more from Max Wong.

Max Wong's picture


Thank you so much for your kind words. They made my day!

Also, thank you for giving birth to Meg! She's an amazing and inspirational editor. I honestly couldn't do this job without her.

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Max! A friend of mine was just yesterday telling me about these. What a fun idea! Thanks for writing about the specifics.