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Little Free Library 'movement' surfaces in Gwinnett

Photo: David McGregor Laura Christenberry stands with her children Sophie (9), Lucy (5), Sam (13), and Evan (12) next to their "Little Free Library" outside of their house in Buford.

Photo: David McGregor Laura Christenberry stands with her children Sophie (9), Lucy (5), Sam (13), and Evan (12) next to their "Little Free Library" outside of their house in Buford.

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Photo: David McGregor Evan Christenberry looks for a book to read in Gwinnett's first "Little Free Library" outside of his home in Buford.

Tips for LFL stewardship

-- Before building, consult local ordinances and regulations

-- Strive for weather resistance, especially against rain

-- Do not use glass

-- Learn more at www.littlefreelib... See the site for design ideas, and tips on preventing vandalism

BUFORD -- The first patron of Gwinnett's first Little Free Library was curious and impressed, but a tad perplexed. Convinced she was looking at a lovely but gargantuan birdhouse, plunked beside Buford's Spring Street like a mailbox, the neighbor nonetheless took a book. Perhaps fittingly, she chose the title "One Thousand Gifts."

Other books on the little shelf, arranged from youth to advanced reading levels, were a demographic reflection of this walkable community across the train tracks from downtown Buford: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" for the kids, "Dos Californios" and other Spanish-language options for the newcomers and "To Kill A Mockingbird" for older folks who appreciate vintage Southern fare.

The challenge for the library's stewards, the Christenberry family, was convincing people to take the books. That something of value was offered for free struck some neighbors as counter-intuitive.

"There's no strings attached," said Laura Christenberry, a mother of four who stumbled on the Little Free Library concept online. "You can't steal free books."

The free book exchange concept, called a "movement" by most stewards, began in 2009 with a single mini-library in Wisconsin and has since spread globally, with libraries registered in 45 states and in countries from Ghana to Germany. The Christenberry's address was registered last week, solidifying their cedar box with Plexiglas windows and a collage of old book pages as Gwinnett's first Little Free Library, the third in metro Atlanta and sixth across Georgia.

In a time of shortened library hours and pinched budgets, when hand-held reading devices jeopardize the tactile pleasures of turning actual pages, stewards of the libraries view them as a means to promote reading good books and interfacing with neighbors. It's a concept the Christenberrys hope will catch on in Gwinnett.

"People stop and talk, and that's something that's been lost over the years," said Christenberry.

The rules, if you can call them that, are simple. There's no fees or check-out time frame. Stewards ask only that borrowed books be returned or replaced by comparable titles.

The very first Free Little Library was in the style of a one-room school house, built three years ago as an ode to cofounder Todd Bol's mother, said his founding partner Rick Brooks, an outreach program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Brooks said more than 1,000 libraries have popped up since; they suspect that for every one they're aware of, three or four more exist.

The goal is to surpass the number of libraries endowed by legendary philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (2,509). Brooks, who calls himself a "social entrepreneur," said that could happen this year.

"I've been doing this work for 35 years, and I've never had a project in my professional lifetime that's been this successful," Brooks said. "It capitalizes on the yearning for a sense of community, and a way to connect."

Brooks said the intent was never to profit the concept, though pre-built libraries and kits are available via the group's website for between $250 and $600, and Bol has been able to carve a career of the endeavor. But Brooks said about 70 percent of stewards have built libraries themselves, incorporating everything from barnwood, microwaves, gas pumps and dormitory refrigerators to a canoe.

Themes have run the gamut from a "Tyrannosaurus Rex" at a preschool to "White Fang" at a dog park. A program launched at a prison had built more than 20 libraries, with interest ballooning at other jails and penitentiaries. The day Brooks spoke to the Daily Post, he'd just gotten off the phone with a Brooklyn group wanting to dot New York City in little street-side libraries.

In Buford, the builder was Christenberry's father, Tony Walsh, an amateur woodworker who has furnished birdhouses to the Army Corp. of Engineers. He skewed toward basic ("Cedar wasn't too flashy") and functional, as a gabled overhang not only mimics the Christenberry's 97-year-old home -- the rumored home of Buford's first telephone -- but also diverts rainwater.

"It belongs to the community," Walsh said.

Christenberry plans to keep her 20-book shelf stocked with bargain books she finds on Amazon.com or at a local discount bookstore. Said her son, Evan, 12: "I don't want people to think it's just for friends. I want everybody to do it."

Across Georgia, as of Friday, other registered libraries had sprouted in Summerville, Savannah and East Lake. Christenberry said she donated $20 as a registration fee, though it wasn't required.

Atlanta resident David Laufer, a book designer, lays claim to having Georgia's first registered library, built from scrap wood and stocked with books he'd owned and read. At first, he said, neighbors didn't know what to make of it, so he borrowed a "Free Information" brochure holder from a Realtor friend to offer a synopsis in the form of bookmarks.

Laufer hopes to see hundreds across Georgia by next year.

"I think you'll see them popping up, here and there," he said. "It's one of those things that people just get."

Metro Atlanta's second library sprouted when Susan Harlan, owner of Smyrna's Vickery Hardware Store (where she used to hide and read as a kid) saw a newspaper article about the concept. Hers is a miniature version of the store, latched to the building.

"The thought that there are just books sitting around, not being read, seemed wasteful, when there are eager minds wanting to soak them up," Harlan said. "When I read a used book, I like to imagine whose hands held it before me, and what they might have felt when they read this page, or what they thought about the plot.

"Books are a connection in and of themselves," she said. "If we can help promote that, we're glad to be a part of it all."

Brooks, the cofounder, doesn't disparage technology, but he knows there's virtue is keeping reading old school.

"If someone says to you 20 years from now what do you remember from your childhood, it won't be a story on Kindle or Facebook," he said. "It'll be something your mother or grandmother read to you."