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M Lyster and CharlieWEST HIGHLAND RESIDENT MICHAEL LYSTER AND HIS DOG Charlie next to The Groucho Marx Memorial Library, one of many Little Free Libraries scattered throughout the Edgewater and northwest Denver neighborhoods. PHOTO BY KEN LUTES.By Ken Lutes

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx

West Highland residents Michael Lyster and Nora Morgenstern retired in the spring of 2014 and made building a Little Free Library (LFL) their first project. They named it The Groucho Marx Memorial Library.

“I Googled ‘Little Free Library plans’ and found one I liked,” said Lyster. “I got about halfway through building it and decided to make it look like our house.”

In Edgewater, Mark Donaldson discovered an untapped artistic talent while building his LFL.

“I had never painted anything, artistically, but I figured if I paint one library with flowers, that makes me an artist. So on the LFL national registry it states that my library was painted by a local artist – and that’s me.”

Sloan Lake resident Shelly Lira’s love for reading led her to ask her brother-in-law to build a little library for her. He did, from recycled materials.

“He loves to dumpster-dive, and builds all sorts of things,” Lira said. “The LFL is made from completely recycled materials, and he made it to match our house.”

The love of reading is the common glue binding these three LFL “librarians” to their dedication of maintaining them. If you don’t have one in your neighborhood, chances are you will soon. More than 60,000 have been built since 2009, worldwide, according to the Little Free Library website.

“We see them all over town,” Lyster said. Commenting on the effect of having built one, he added, “I think it’s like when your wife’s pregnant, everybody seems to be pregnant; or you buy a new car, and everybody’s driving your make and model of car.”

“I didn’t realize that children’s books would be so popular,” said Lira. “Those turn over really well, especially in the summer, when we get two to five visitors a day.”

Lira remarked that when she and her husband first moved into the Sloan Lake neighborhood 22 years ago, they were the only family on the street.

“Everybody else was retired, there were no kids at all – and now there are so many young families. The bottom shelf is the children’s section.”

Donaldson also built his LFL with children in mind.

“Our house is near a school, and my hope is that people on their way to or from will stop and pick up a book. I built the bottom shelf purposely tall, so [oversized] children’s books would stand up in there. I think I get a couple visitors a day.”

Lyster, too, maintains a small area for kids.

“The remaining space is for ‘high quality’ novels and nonfiction. We’ve had people drop off paper bags full of books. Someone dropped off a bag of about 30 Agatha Christie mysteries in paperback – maybe the product of somebody’s beach vacation habit – but we only put out a few at time.”

When Lira erected her LFL, which is rooted into the ground through an old oak whiskey barrel, she had envisioned her collection would be dominated by sci-fi books – her favorite reading pastime. But now she says, “it’s taken on a life of its own and is pretty much a mish-mash of genres.”

Keeping LFLs stocked isn’t a problem for these three librarians, who say that, after the initial stocking, the neighbors are pretty good at helping with the rotation of books. Lyster says they pulled books from their shelves when they opened their library four years ago.

“It was an opportunity to get rid of some,” he said. Donaldson keeps an eye on his stock and says, “If things start looking a little lonely, I stock from a collection I keep in a closet, or run to the thrift store to find books that appeal to me, hoping they’ll appeal to somebody else.”

Lyster says his wife Nora does a better job of maintaining the selection than he does.

“If she sees books that aren’t moving, she’ll take them out and distribute them to other LFLs in the area, and there are several. Once in a great while, it’ll get stuffed with some type of cultish religious track, which we take out. Is that censorship? I guess it is. Books that are judgmental of other people we tend to remove.”

So, what is the appeal of these little book-sharing boxes that seem to be popping up on every street in town? The consensus among these three librarians is that they’re good for the community.

“I think of it as a community service,” said Lira. “I’ve never heard anything negative about them. Whenever someone hears we have one, they say, ‘Oh! You have a little library,’ with a sense of wonder.”

Donaldson says he especially likes when people stop their cars and hop out to take a quick look.

“If they take something, it makes me think that they have found a prize.”

“It’s a little neighborhood community builder,” said Lyster. “I’ve never heard anybody say, “[Gosh darn it], what am I supposed to do with another book? Everybody’s very enthusiastic about taking a book, leaving a book. There’s a little motto, ‘We all do better when we all read better.’”

Visit littlefreelibrary.org for more information.

Interested in building your own Little Free Library?

Here’s how, along with some helpful tips:

Visit the Little Free Library’s official website, littlefreelibrary.org, to learn about the history of this fast-growing phenomenon. The site is packed with inspiring stories by LFL “librarians” and useful tips for building and maintaining your library box. Here are a few basics:

  • Locate a suitable area near a sidewalk, bike or walking path
  • Determine your customer base. If mainly for children, consider making the lowest shelf easily accessible to them
  • Use recycled, salvaged and found materials if you can
  • Use green building techniques whenever possible
  • Use Plexiglass for the window
  • Build it to last, using screws, not nails
  • Make it weather-resistant and water-tight, with caulking and several coats of paint or stain
  • Consider a strand of solar lights inside the box for winter months and nighttime
  • Make sure signs are easily read from five to 10 feet away
  • Consider installing a counter on the door, to record the number of visits
  • Be creative! Visit existing libraries in your community for ideas
  • The name “Little Free Library” and its common variations are trademarked and you must register with the LFL website to use it.

    –Ken Lutes