Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in an ongoing series that helps pedestrians and cyclists immerse themselves in neighborhoods by touring their Little Free Libraries. Other installments have looked at libraries in Rondo, Linden Hills and Macalester-Groveland.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Little Free Library. It was April 2012. I was riding my bike on St. Paul’s West Side. On Cherokee Avenue, just southwest of the Smith Avenue High Bridge, I came upon the maroon- and cream-colored wooden box. The house-shaped box stood in the boulevard atop a wood post at just about eye level. Remarkably, the box was filled with books.
I’d never seen this before and was delighted that someone created a unique way to give books another life. Not until I got home from the ride and researched Little Free Libraries did I learn the Cherokee Avenue library was one of thousands spanning the globe.
Since that day, I’ve taken note of Little Free Libraries as I’ve biked around the Twin Cities. Often I’ll slow to survey the architecture of the library; sometimes I’ll pause to scope out the books within; and when the library is noteworthy, I’ll take photos.
Recently Streets.mn asked for stories about Little Free Libraries. I chose to write about some of the libraries in a St. Paul neighborhood I’m less familiar with — the North End. The neighborhood boundaries, as you can see on the map below, are Interstate 35E on the east, Dale Street on the west, Larpenteur Avenue on the north and BNSF railroad tracks on the south.
The North End is among the oldest neighborhoods in St. Paul. Following the relocation of Native peoples from the area with the 1837 signing of the Treaty of St. Peters, new immigrants settled in the North End. Europeans from various countries were the first to move to the North End beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the 1900s. Much more recently — over the past several decades — Hmong, Somali and Karen immigrants have taken up residence in the North End.
Because of its early European settlement, the North End boasts some of St. Paul’s oldest houses, just north of the Capitol on either side of Rice Street. The North End has both the highest percentage of residents earning less than $35,000 per year and the lowest earning $100,000 or more in St. Paul, according to statistics compiled by Minnesota Compass.
I used the Little Free Library website to plot a route to stroll. I drove to Burgess Street just east of Dale Street, parked the car and walked between three and four miles within the neighborhood. I visited eight homes with libraries and knocked on doors at each of them hoping to learn the who, what, where, when and why of each library. Unfortunately not a single person answered, so I wrote a letter that explained what I was doing and asked them to email or call me. Three of the eight responded, and their thoughts are in this story.
Not one, but three Little Free Library boxes lined the sidewalk at the first home at which I stopped, 594 Burgess St. I talked on the phone with library custodian Kathy Kruger, a self-described “recovering preschool teacher.” The Little Free Libraries are her way of continuing to support literacy, work she began when she taught. “I do it because literacy is so important and I love books!”
Kathy wanted a Little Free Library for years. She and her husband, Jack, put in their first set of three about eight years ago when they lived on St. Paul’s East Side. The main library was a discarded doll house she found on Park Street in Minneapolis. “I saw a doll house and pulled over. I pulled it out of the mud. A man and his son helped load it in my van.”
When she got home, she showed her husband, Jack, the dollhouse and said, “Honey, here’s our Little Free Library!” The large dollhouse — with three stories and five big rooms — was a perfect library that held all sizes of books. Kathy and Jack also put up two plastic house-shaped newspaper boxes she found. One appeared to be abandoned. She kept an eye on it for a couple of months before taking it home. She found the second one sitting empty on University Avenue.
It took little time for the library to attract neighbors. One memorable interaction for Kathy involved a Hmong family that stopped with their grandmother, who spoke little English. Kathy gave them some books for beginning readers and they became regular visitors. Another neighborhood girl loved Kathy’s Little Free Library so much she helped restock and organize books until Kathy and Jack moved.
Kathy and Jack left their East Side home with their three Little Free Library boxes and relocated to 594 Burgess St. about three years ago. The first thing they did was set up the library, “maybe before we unpacked our toothbrushes.”
The dollhouse library made it through the move before the rain, snow, ice, freezing, thawing and sun battered it into submission. Kathy and Jack found a replacement at a thrift store, which held up for about three years before succumbing to the elements.
People walking, biking and pushing strollers stop at Kathy and Jack’s Little Free Library daily. Like their East Side neighborhood, the North End is busy and diverse, with Latino, African American, Hmong and European American residents. As a result, Kathy stocks the library selectively: “I look for books that represent people who come by.” That means books for all ages, in different languages, fiction and non-fiction of various genres.
Even after eight years the Little Free Library still gives Kathy a thrill. “I love it when I see children and parents on the bench reading a book.”
The eight-tenths of a mile walk to the second library on Farrington Street took me along both residential and light to moderate industrial blocks common in this part of the North End. The Little Free Library at 1014 Farrington is one I’ve passed several times while biking.
The eye-catching design of alternating colors is appealing. However, based upon its condition and that of the books, this library appears to be barely or no longer curated.
I continued my stroll north and east to the library at 234 Rose Ave. W., tended to by homeowner Sharon Kjellberg. Her Little Free Library appeared to sprout from the ground of the boulevard like the plants surrounding it. The weathered, rustic library held a nice offering of reads for children and adults.
In an email, Sharon shared an article she authored several years ago for BookWomen magazine about her library. Sharon learned about Little Free Libraries from a 2012 newspaper article, which inspired her to put one up. She purchased a library kit, and her brother built and mounted it on a post on the boulevard in front of her home.
Sharon happily gave away more than 100 children’s books the first summer. “I loved watching the kids stop on their bikes, look through, pick a few and leave with them.” Many of those books came from the collection she accumulated over 40 years as an elementary school teacher.
In her email, Sharon told me she and some neighbors keep her library stocked with books for adults. Many children’s books came from a Ramsey County library employee who donated a large number that had been removed from that collection. Sharon continues to replenish the books for kids from this large donation.
When the COVID pandemic descended, Sharon converted her library into a free food pantry. “I would supply non-perishables for the pantry, and I also found some of my neighbors adding items. I did this for about a year, until a community pantry was erected about a block from me.” At that time, she reverted to a standard book box. More recently she’s added as many “banned” books as she can find.
In the BookWomen article, Sharon stated that “frequently you don’t know the impact of your actions but sometimes you do get an inkling.” She was working in her front garden one day when a man in his late-20s stopped and asked, “‘Is this your library? It’s nice, the kids here ain’t got nuthin’,’ and he walked away. I was stunned but felt grateful that he had even taken the time to say something.”
Then, one early December several years ago, Sharon was snow blowing the sidewalk when she saw, written in the snow next to the library, two simple words: Thank You. “It touched my heart,” she said.
The North End Free Pantry that Sharon mentioned was my next stop. You can’t miss the large rectangular box in the middle of the sidewalk in front of 1167 Galtier St. Started by a former neighbor in 2017, Andi Booker assumed the role of pantry caretaker when that person moved in 2020. As part of that responsibility, Andi moved the pantry to her front yard.
The North End Free Pantry helps struggling neighbors avoid having to choose between buying groceries or paying other expenses. It “provides shelf-stable ingredients, cleaning products, and sometimes fresh fruits and vegetables and ‘refrigerated’ items in the winter when the temperature is safe for them,” said Andi in an email.
Andi developed partnerships with some area nonprofits to help fill the pantry. FOCUS Minnesota is contributing lunch and snack kits this year and North End Early Learning Coalition donated dinner kits and some pantry staples. Even so, about “98 percent of the donations are from members of the community.”
The lessening of the pandemic has not changed the demand for food, according to Andi. “I have a room in my house where I keep overstock and [it] almost has been completely emptied. Since the pandemic, the need for the Pantry has skyrocketed.”
Andi appreciates donations of any non-perishable food but items in especially high demand include:
- Pasta (macaroni and cheese is always good)
- Canned vegetables, meat, fruit
- Personal care items (deodorant, toothbrush/toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner)
- Cleaning products, including laundry detergent
- Breakfast items (pancake mix, granola bars, juice boxes, cereal, oatmeal)
The next several libraries were close to one another but had me bouncing back and forth across Maryland Avenue like a ping pong ball.
One block north and one west put me at 303 Maryland Ave. W. at a home with a double library. A bustling arterial street, Maryland Avenue seldom lacks for traffic, so I wasn’t surprised to see one of the two matching libraries empty and the other light on selection.
Moving back south across Maryland, this time on Farrington Street, I stopped to peruse the library at 1196. According to the decal on the plexiglass window, this is a “Free Little Library and Foodshelf.” Though lacking food, it was nearly full with a blend of adult books and a smattering of children’s offerings.
Next stop was an attractive yellow and green Little Free Library at 379 Maryland. This one had a decent stock of children’s books. Dinosaurs, horses and a one-act musical were among the topics of the books for kids, but I counted only two for adults.
Getting to the last library of the day required, as you probably guessed, another crossing of Maryland. It was in the 1100 block of Arundel, which, unlike all the other streets I walked, was populated primarily by 1960s-era ramblers.
The library at 1196 Arundel was the most packed of all I visited. Many of the books were for children, but the quantity and placement of the books made it difficult to see many offerings. A reorganization or removal of a few books would have made it much easier to properly explore the library.
With the stop at 1196 Arundel I’d exhausted the libraries within this part of the North End so I walked back to the car. Below is a map of my route, which I’d encourage readers to follow, perhaps with pantry supplies and books in hand.
After reflecting upon the eight libraries and the three women who answered my inquiries, I see how a library or pantry brings neighbors together in unique and positive ways. Those with the book libraries love reading and know it is key to learning; those supplying food recognize the growing needs of the working poor. All are sincerely dedicated to helping others, especially residents of the North End.
Except where otherwise noted, all photos are by the author.