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Portland book lovers nurture neighborhood camaraderie with mini librariesPrint Email >Kelly House | The Oregonian/OregonLive By Kelly House | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian
on December 21, 2011 at 4:00 PM, updated December 22, 2011 at 5:53 AM
"It gives everyone a sense that they have something in common," says Lakeman, 50. "Even when people aren't using it, it's a symbol."
For more than 15 years, the box has provided neighborhood residents and visitors with an ever-evolving selection of titles, free for the taking. In exchange, neighbors restock it with their own books, giving new life to stories that otherwise would rest forgotten on a living room bookshelf or coffee table.Since Lakeman installed Portland's first known community lending library at Southeast Ninth Avenue and Sherrett Street, residents from Alameda to Sunnyside have followed suit, turning Portland's tree-lined street corners into miniature community centers that nurture literacy and camaraderie on a neighborhood scale. View full sizeMotoya Nakamura/ The OregonianPatt Opdyke's library, constructed by an artist friend, is made of painted wood with a copper sheet roof. The shelves are stocked with novels, how-to books and magazines from Opdyke's personal collection. When Rick Waldren moved to Portland's Sunnyside neighborhood in 1996, he couldn't get enough of the book box near the sunflower-painted intersection south of 33rd and Belmont.
Waldren, 49, had lived in cities throughout the country but never saw anything like the micro-sized library on the corner. Soon he became a regular visitor.
"I started finding really neat things I would never have read," he says. Case in point: an independently published Canadian novel never sold in U.S. bookstores. "I got it just because it was in the box, and it was this beautiful novel about space and the effect of place on people."
When Waldren moved to the Alameda neighborhood last year, he wanted to carry on the tradition in his new locale. He installed an oversized black mailbox at the corner of Northeast 25th Avenue and Ridgewood Drive, painted "BOOKS" in block letters on the side and stocked it with a few favorites from his personal collection. Soon enough, the neighborhood's dog walkers and bicyclists took notice.
"I'm effectively known as Mr. Books now," Waldren says.
Waldren represents a growing group of Portlanders who, inspired by an opportunity to build community or a simple love of literacy, have turned their front yards into hubs of neighborhood activity.
Much like the poetry posts that started with a single post on Alameda Street and now dot lawns and gardens throughout the city, the library boxes exhibit a snowball effect. Shortly after a new box is installed, visitors take notice and follow suit in their own neighborhoods.
Patt Opdyke's new library box, just north of North Houghton Street on Fortune Avenue, invites readers with cheery turquoise paint, a copper roof and an owl-shaped doorknob.
On Southeast 15th and Alder, the Buckman Community Association maintains a simple box with an attached bulletin board.
Other boxes of varying shapes, sizes and levels of sophistication line sidewalks throughout the city, inviting passers-by to stop and thumb through magazines, take a book home or leave one for others to enjoy.
Lakeman's library box in Sellwood has blossomed into Share-it-Square, the neighborhood hub that also includes a 24-hour tea station, bulletin board and park space. Such outdoor community centers are common in Europe, Lakeman says, but the tradition is missing from America's neighborhoods.
"(European neighborhoods) have evolved over time by cultural processes," he says. "American neighborhoods are more laid out by housing developments ... a cultural center in a neighborhood just doesn't happen."
The library boxes help fill that void, Lakeman says.
While most of Portland's little libraries are homemade affairs, Opdyke's Portsmouth neighborhood box is registered with the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Little Free Library, which promotes literacy worldwide.
"I can't imagine what my life would have been like had I not been able to read, so anything that encourages reading is really important for me," says Opdyke, 67.
Opdyke stocks her library with selections from the six full-size bookshelves in her home -- everything from classic novels to gardening books. She hopes to eventually add a few Spanish language texts for the neighborhood's Latino population.
"It's just being a part of my community and providing a place for people to hang out and get to know each other," Opdyke says. "It's a nonthreatening environment."
Portland's neighborhood lending libraries are so popular they've sparked trends in other cities in the U.S. and internationally.
A Vancouver, B.C., resident introduced the concept to his neighborhood after discovering Portland's library boxes during a trip to the Rose City. Little Free Library co-founder Rick Brooks found inspiration for his Wisconsin-based nonprofit in Portland's library boxes. Since then, the organization's libraries have expanded to communities throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Brooks says it's no surprise that community-oriented, sustainable, book-loving Portland would be among the first to popularize the miniature lending libraries.
"Portland is doing a lot of things that are part of the inspiration for this," he says.
In the Buckman neighborhood, the library shares an intersection with a community compost and vegetable garden. Nancy Oberschmidt, the neighborhood association's sustainability chair, says Buckman residents love the book exchange, although most do more borrowing than lending. Every couple of weeks, an anonymous resident drops by with dozens of books to replenish the stock.
"I call him the book fairy," Oberschmidt says.
Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate has pulled dozens of children's books from the Share-it-Square library for his 6-year-old son. Just as often, he pulls a book or two from his personal collection to share with neighbors. He says the box has a "magical" presence.
"There are no rules," says Ferbel-Azcarate, 45. "We don't have a Dewey Decimal System. ... Someone could drop something off and someone picks it up five minutes later. Only the universe knows what's been exchanged."
The libraries serve multiple purposes, depending upon the vibe of the neighborhood. In some, users quietly drop by without a glance in either direction. Other neighborhoods use the boxes as virtual water coolers, where residents gather for a dose of gossip along with their reading. In neighborhoods like Opdyke's, they're a socioeconomic equalizer -- books are accessible to those with six-figure salaries, as well as the homeless who frequently walk past Opdyke's home.
She hopes that while neighbors dig into the box, they'll discover their differences aren't that significant, after all.
"I've been here 14 years and I intend to live here a lot longer, and it's just being a part of my community," Opdyke says. "To build more of that interaction and create someplace that people feel they can stop and look and enjoy something. That there's a place for them."
Note: Do you know of a book box we haven't included on the above map? Comment below with the coordinates.
-- Kelly House>
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