Little free libraries like 'coral reefs for community'

Teale Phelps Bondaroff spends a lot of his time thinking about books.

A couple of times a week he loads up a bike trailer, which can hold up to 250 paperbacks, and pedals around town delivering books to free little libraries in need of a top-up. The weekend before last, he delivered the 20,000th book to a little library in ­Saanich as part of a placemaking ­project started in 2017.

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He selected Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne to mark the milestone, because he thought the title was “poetically appropriate for the 20,000th book.”

The 10,000th book delivered was a pilot’s autobiography reflecting on life at 10,000 feet, and Phelps Bondaroff is already thinking about what title to choose for the next big milestone.

Although the little libraries operate on a “take a book, leave a book policy,” new libraries often need a little help getting started, because people need to get in the habit of bringing a book when they go for a walk, Phelps Bondaroff said.

That’s where the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network’s Pocket Places Project comes in. Since 2017, volunteers like Phelps Bondaroff have been topping up the libraries and helping people build their own to add to the region’s growing collection. In that time, Phelps Bondaroff has personally made 1,220 visits to little free ­libraries, topping them up and sometimes ­redistributing books.

For Phelps Bondaroff, the free ­little libraries are about much more than books. They’re places where you can strike up a conversation with a ­stranger, meet your neighbours and make new friends.

“I’ve always described the libraries as coral reefs for community. And so they have the potential to sort of serve as these community hubs,” he said.

In one little free library in Royal Oak, there’s a notebook where people who need help running errands can leave their information and ask for support. Those wanting to offer help can also leave a note to connect.

“So during the height of COVID, if you needed help picking up groceries, you could say: ‘I need help picking up groceries. Here’s my phone number or email.’ And then someone in the back could say: ‘I’ve got a car on Tuesdays if someone needs a ride to a medical appointment,’ ” he said.

Many free little libraries have active social media accounts, sometimes interacting with each other. When there was flooding in Texas in 2019, Phelps Bondaroff reached out through his own library’s Twitter account to a free little library there to see how it was faring.

“It’s like a whimsical interjection to the normal hellscape that is Twitter, where you get, you know, just two inanimate objects talking to each other,” he said.

He’s also struck up a relationship with someone who runs a little library in England, exchanging postcards addressed to their libraries every few months.

Of the more than 400 little free libraries in Greater Victoria, there are some that offer exchanges in items other than books, like seeds and children’s activities and at least two “super COVID-appropriate” puzzle libraries, Phelps Bondaroff said.

“It’s kind of like one of these things where you start with a little library, and then you can expand to benches, to community bulletin boards, to ­emergency safety meeting spots, to community,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to community.”

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