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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I fell in love with the Little Free Library concept years ago on vacation. The notion of free literature-sharing boxes posted in neighbourhoods and public spaces hooked me. I discovered them at the edges of parkettes and along sidewalks. For a booklover, this represented bliss. At home, my bedside table sprouts books and from the floor rises a mountainous to-be-read pile. My husband wasn’t the least bit surprised when I suggested starting our own Little Free Library. As a writer and introvert, I relished the idea of saying hello to other booklovers on occasion.

The following winter, my husband built a replica of our Irish garden shed with a framed glass door on the front and, in the spring, mounted it on a post in front of our house. We stocked the shelves with books and since then, visitors have replenished them with literary fiction, romances, mysteries, science fiction, cowboy westerns, young-adult fiction, poetry, how-to’s, self-help and a range of other non-fiction.

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The scope of books has expanded to include children’s stories. I imagine pandemic-restricted grandparents engaging their faraway grandchildren with these over Zoom. Or perhaps they read their own childhood favourites and enjoy nostalgia flowing like warm maple syrup through their veins. Many times, I’ve witnessed mothers lifting children for a peek into the library while they explain the take-a-book/leave-a-book concept, lessons in respect and sharing.

Physically distant; hearts connected: in Manitoba we press on

My love of reading harks back to 1970 and a three-room schoolhouse on an old Quaker sideroad in Southern Ontario. One day after recess ended, the other first graders returned to class, but I took an accidental detour to the basement library. The principal eventually found me there blissfully leafing through picture books. Soon after, the discovery of mould rendered the basement unfit and the books were discarded.

Necessity is the mother of all invention. Weeks later, a purple transport truck arrived hauling a matching trailer – the inside of which had been transformed into a bookworm’s nirvana. I remember the travelling bookmobile’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the carpet-covered benches inside the perimeter of the trailer. Before disembarking, I’d write my name on the sign-out card below graphite-scratched names of children from neighbouring schools. We liked the same books and, although we never met, I considered them friends.

I smile when people comment that, from a distance, our Little Free Library resembles a bird feeder. My husband and I enjoy our share of backyard birdwatching. Now we pass our front window and sometimes see birds of a different feather perusing the library where every book is a new seed for thought. Borrowers come and go unnoticed, but a thread of common interest connects us.

For a time after COVID-19 first struck, public libraries shut down and Amazon prioritized the delivery of essential and high-demand items. Books were less easily attained. Traffic to our library increased. I posted reminders about handwashing precautions and still readers kept coming.

We wondered if we should close the Little Free Library and revisited our original motivations for hosting it: to facilitate the exchange of books, to create a sense of community. So many struggle with the depression and anxiety that come with social and physical isolation – or conversely with the lack of privacy from confinement with roommates, partners and family. Reading provides the escapism necessary to relieve the emotional crush. With this in mind, we stocked the library with hand sanitizer and a written reminder on staying safe.

Through my teens, reading transported me to other places and eras. I spent hours with characters to whom I felt a connection. Books taught me about life and how people overcame adversity. Even the inner lives of protagonists enduring misery in tragic stories brought solace. I no longer felt alone in the things I struggled against.

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Aside from the entertainment books offer, studies show that reading exposes us to other cultures and perspectives. Literature sheds light on the justice to be found in social inclusion and community cohesion. Self-esteem and empathy grow in equal measure as we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

Through the most trying decade of my adult life, I turned away from books and focused on surviving my circumstances. I missed the emotional comfort of reading although I didn’t know it at the time. When my life changed for the better, I returned to books, and the relationship has blossomed as have I. Stories reminded me, and still do, of life’s possibilities.

“Read anything good lately?” is often the opening to conversations with friends. My husband and I discuss novels we’re reading, how the plot reminds us of a current event, another book or perhaps a movie we’ve seen.

Movies and episodic television provide the viewer with images that direct us to feel predetermined emotions. But a book invites us to interpret words in order to make our own meaning and allows our minds the pleasurable task of generating images to match the story. For me, the escapism of literature rules supreme.

When visitors stop by our Little Free Library, we sometimes chat about books as I stand a safe physical distance on my front steps. Walkers include our street in their route so they can check for new offerings. Some folks routinely drive from several blocks away to visit. The regular turnover of books and the emptying hand sanitizer bottle point to the number of borrowers I never see, the birds who flit by quietly then disappear.

A fellow book lover sent me this Virginia Woolf quote. “Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides in his random miscellaneous company, we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

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During this time of COVID, the Little Free Library has reinforced, for me, the importance of literature and reading to our emotional and mental health. It’s become an alternate means of creating a community of people with mutual regard for humanity and the written word. We are together even when apart.

Gwen Tuinman lives in Whitby, Ont.

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