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Santa Clara Valley Lives: In praise of the Little Free Library – a pleasurable pandemic panacea

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Robin Chapman/Special to the Town Crier
A Little Free Library on Campbell Avenue in Los Altos is designed to complement the owner’s front garden.

Those little wooden boxes full of used books, known collectively as the Little Free Library, have been a delight to many neighborhoods in recent years.

The concept began with Todd H. Bol, who in 2009 built one in his Wisconsin hometown and then created a not-for-profit organization to spread them around. There are now 100,000 of them in 50 states and 108 countries.

They took on new import when public libraries across the country closed in March to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. In Santa Clara County, our libraries have finally reopened, but for online ordering and pickup only.

In the interim, the charming, rustic-styled Little Free Libraries have been a boon. Their motto: “Take a book. Return a book.” And that’s how they work. The steward who installs one in front of his or her house or business fills it with books and keeps it neat. There is no supervision; anyone may borrow a book and return it or share another in its place.

Checking the ZIP code map on littlefreelibrary.org, I counted at least 30 of them in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View, and there may be more, because the organization logs only the ones people have registered.

Each one includes a wide range of offerings, from children’s books to cookbooks, from history to histrionics. There are lots of cast-off Ludlums, Pattersons and Clancys, of course. But if you search with care, you may find something special.

Treasure hunt

On University Avenue, I found a battered copy of “‘J’ Is for Judgment,” a 1993 Kinsey Millhone “alphabet series” mystery from the pen of the late Sue Grafton. I’m pretty sure I read it long ago, but I took it home anyway, because going back in time to the 1990s has been looking better by the day.

Some of the books have surprising benefits. On Campbell Avenue, I found the autobiography of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, now 94. The first half, about his childhood in New York and how his early interest in music led to his facility for finance, was interesting. The second half – about the many economic crises he helped us survive and all the meetings he attended to make that possible – was better than melatonin for a sleepless night.

The best treasure I found was the novel “Miss Buncle Married” by a writer I’d never heard of, D.E. Stevenson. I was attracted by its charming cover, which showed a flapper strolling a cobbled street with a dapper gentleman. It was a modern edition of a 1936 book, and its author was best-selling writer Dorothy Emily Stevenson (1892-1973), first cousin (once removed) of Robert Louis Stevenson. Who knew?

I called my contacts at the Robert Louis Stevenson Club of Monterey, and they had never heard of her, though she sold 7 million copies of her books during her lifetime. I’m now researching an article on her.

Better than that, I loved the book. Stevenson wrote with tongue firmly in cheek about life in a fictional, 1930s English village. In her world, things do go wrong but are always put right, in a style a bit like Jane Austen crossed with P.G. Wodehouse – of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves fame. At one point, I had to set the book down because a character had lost his trousers and I was laughing so hard I could no longer see. My laugh-out-loud moments have been few as this pandemic has dragged on, so I’m thankful for each one.

Being transported by a book put me in mind of a quote from the scholar Erasmus, who famously said: “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

The Little Free Library goes Erasmus one better: no charge for the books and a moveable feast for the restless reader.

Robin Chapman, a Los Altos native, is a longtime journalist and historian.

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