Rondo in Stories: A Little Free Library Walking Tour

Editor’s note: This is the third piece in a new series about exploring the Twin Cities and its suburbs – and smaller communities in Minnesota – through the lens of Little Free Library book boxes. See prior installments here.

When I moved to the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul in December of 2020, I knew very little about the history of the neighborhood. As a white woman and a transplant from northeast Wisconsin, it didn’t take long to pick up on clues in the area. At the corner of Dale Street and St. Anthony Avenue, for example, a sign is on the fence out front of Rondo’s only remaining original business, Tiger Jack’s Shack, describing just a small piece of that history. 

As I got settled in my new home, I met my neighbors, explored the area, and conducted some research on the neighborhood. I uncovered the story of Rondo’s destruction for the construction of Interstate 94 and the many attempts to, if not physically, culturally reconnect the divided neighborhood and restore the community to its vibrance.

Despite the destruction, Rondo remains a lively community with so much to offer. As the program coordinator at Little Free Library, I work closely with our volunteer stewards, the individuals and organizations who install, stock and maintain the book-sharing boxes you’ve likely seen here in the Twin Cities and beyond. With over 150,000 Little Free Libraries globally, I see them (without looking very hard) everywhere I go, and Rondo is no exception.

Depending on who you ask, Rondo’s boundaries are University Avenue to the north, Selby Avenue to the south, Rice Street to the east and Lexington Parkway to the west. The divide of I-94 is broached by three pedestrian bridges, at Chatsworth, Grotto and Mackubin Streets. Even so, the neighborhood feels noticeably disconnected, and a visit to the Little Free Libraries south of the highway would be easier for me by bike. Using the Little Free Library mobile app, I created a route of those libraries to check out another time. For now, I just wanted to chat with some neighbors.

Use the Little Free Library mobile app to create a route of libraries to visit in your neighborhood. Image Credit: Little Free Library.

On Selby, however you reach the southern boundary of Rondo, you can find Golden Thyme Coffee and Cafe, where owners Stephanie and Mychael Wright have been serving coffee, food and a community gathering space for over 20 years. At the corner of the building, Little Free Library #122461 is accompanied by a community pantry that includes offerings from a neighbor’s vegetable garden.

Next door to Golden Thyme is In Black Ink, “a publishing arts initiative that provides opportunities for communities that have been disenfranchised historically, and continue to be presently.” I sat down with executive director Rekhet Si-Asar to learn more about In Black Ink and its role in the neighborhood. Not only does the organization publish emerging authors from St. Paul and Greater Minnesota, it provides mentorship, resources and training for contributors to gain skills in the full process, from storytelling to publication. When I asked Rekhet about the decision for In Black Ink to be headquartered in Rondo, she talked about the importance of the past: “The Rondo neighborhood is important as a historical, as well as a present-day, movement to really heal communities of people of color [that have been divided].” Safeguarding the history and sense of community here, educating new generations and honoring neighborhood elders are at the core of In Black Ink’s approach to storytelling.

The pantry box beside the Little Free Library at Golden Thyme offers free and accessible dry goods to neighbors in need.

When the Wrights invited Rekhet to establish an office in their space on Selby, it was a no-brainer to bring books to this gathering space and “build that sense that a community has spaces where people feel connected.” The feeling of mutual care, love and respect is palpable in Rekhet’s words and presence, and the display of books in her office exudes pride. We chatted about some ideas for the Little Free Library, said our goodbyes, and I picked up a delicious iced coffee from the cafe on my way out. With Rekhet’s insights, I was ready to start my walking tour more informed.

In my little corner of the neighborhood, north of I-94, I thought the best way to conduct my tour of Little Free Libraries would be with my dog Petunia’s walking route. With a tote bag full of books on my shoulder – the better to uphold the Little Free Library “take a book, share a book” mantra – we set out on our walk.

Heading west on Central Avenue from Dale Street – after you check out the sign at Tiger Jack’s Shack – is a perfect route to get in lots of stops in a short distance. At the corner you’ll find charter #95041 at St. James AME Church, complete with a stained-glass window and a red brick exterior to match the church.

At St. James AME, I shared Rembrandt Takes a Walk by Mark Strand.

Just a bit farther down the block is a roomy blue library, #134519. Each side panel has puffy white clouds that catch my eye every time I pass it. The steward, Savannah Dotson, shared that repeated vandalism has been a setback in the past, but keeping the library going is important to her and her family. “We tried to keep our spirits up,” she said, “and kept just putting the library back together…I have a lot of high hopes for continuing to keep it beautiful! Everyone else on our block was wonderful about the LFL.”

My favorite find at this little library was Inheritors by Asako Serizawa.

As I crossed St. Albans Street to reach the next block, I could hear kids playing basketball together at Community Plaza, an affordable housing development where a central courtyard provides a convenient spot for neighbors to meet and relax. I can envision a Little Free Library there someday!

Pilgrim Baptist Church occupies a large corner lot at Central and Grotto, including a beautiful community garden. Fallen tree branches are repurposed as plant supports, raised gardens hold a variety of flowers and vegetables, and there’s a bench under a tree nearby to take a break in the shade. Closer to the church, a friendly sign reads “COME GROW WITH US” right next to a red and blue Little Free Library, charter #26352.

My favorite find at Pilgrim Baptist was Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

Near the front doors of the church, a plaque reads, “St. Paul’s Pilgrim Baptist Church is the first and oldest African American Baptist congregation in Minnesota. PBC was founded by Reverend Robert Hickman and a group of escaped slaves from Boone County, Missouri.” The plaque goes on to share how PBC got its name: Stop by to read the full story.

The plaque at Pilgrim Baptist Church is just one of several historical markers in the neighborhood.

A sunny yellow-sided library, #15959, at the corner of Central and Chatsworth shares mostly children’s books, with something for kids of all ages. A couple of titles for older readers make it a good stop for the whole family. At the house next door, a community pantry is stocked full in a large plastic tub near the sidewalk. I shared The Storyteller by Aaron Starmer.

The Aurora/St. Anthony Peace Sanctuary Garden near Victoria Street and Aurora Avenue, home to Little Free Library #31834, is a testament to In Black Ink’s vision of connection. Tucked between two homes, the first feature of the garden you see from the sidewalk is the colorful library. With a prominent peace sign painted on the door, the library complements the rainbow of peace poles placed within the garden. When Petunia and I arrived to check it out, neighbors were improvising a drum beat and song while they prepared for the Children’s Gardening Program, which meets every Wednesday from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Kids and families convene weekly in the summer to learn about flowers and vegetables, weed and water the garden, and enjoy music and conversations with neighbors. I can’t wait to stop by again.

The Peace Garden library offers many books on plants and gardening.

On weekends in Rondo you can hear families and friends playing music in backyards and smell charcoal grills heating up all afternoon and evening. When Petunia and I take our walks and get the opportunity to wave and say hello to our neighbors, to become familiar faces around the neighborhood, I hope to convey warmth to each neighbor we see.

As of July 2022, Little Free Library’s office is located in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood after 10 years of being headquartered where the organization began, in Hudson, Wisconsin. With a diverse array of restaurants and businesses in the neighborhood, a vibrant mural around every corner, and more opportunities to connect with partners and supporters in the Twin Cities, we are thrilled to be here. Perhaps our new headquarters will be included in a future Midway tour of Little Free Libraries!

As I learn more about my neighborhood and those who live and work around me, I gain a fuller, deeper appreciation for the past, present and future of Rondo. It’s a joy to be one small part of this vibrant neighborhood and to witness how Little Free Libraries contribute to that.

All images are by the author, unless otherwise noted.