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Vancouver pop-up libraries serve as community hang outs

Andrew Clark selects a book at his East Vancouver neighbourhood’s book exchange on Charles Street and Lakewood Drive on Friday.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The structure stands at the side of a quiet residential street in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, along a popular bikeway and under a canopy of trees.

Those who are new to it do double-takes as they pass, often cranking their necks, then doubling back to see what the display is all about. Among those who are familiar with it, its description is varied: It's a library; it's a hang-out; it's a neighbourhood symbol of pride.

The small, pop-up libraries come at a time when book and magazine shops around the city are closing, the demand for physical books shifting to tablets and other digital platforms. An Ipsos Reid poll released this past spring found Canadian eReader ownership grew by 43 per cent from August, 2011, to January, 2012 – from 4 per cent of the national population to 10 per cent. At the same time, the unsanctioned repositories continue to multiply, with locations spreading across the North America and the world.

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The two-tiered structure on East 10th Avenue, near St. George Street, was assembled by George Rahi and his roommates. Previously an old shelf found discarded in an alley, it is now stacked with dozens of books, free for the taking – a little library made by, and for, the community. Recent offerings include textbooks, novels and children's books; a notice board is covered in hand-written thank-you notes. ("I have found quite a few little gems at your library hot-spot, and for this, I am grateful," reads one.)

The idea is simple: lend or borrow, give or receive. Roisin Adams, who helps oversee the pop-up library, says it serves as a way to get neighbours talking to one another.

"We're community-oriented, and as a household, trying to figure out ways to be better community neighbours," she says.

"I've lived here for a couple years and only know a handful of my neighbours. Now, every time I walk out of my house, there's somebody out here and you feel a lot more open to saying hello and introducing yourself."

Oliver Kuehn, who lives in the area with his wife and son, likens it to the "broken windows" theory – the idea that cracking down on minor offences such as graffiti and vandalism can forestall bigger crimes. The little things, like a free book exchange, can make a big difference over all, he says.

"It lends a lot of charm to the neighbourhood," he says. "It makes me proud to live in a neighbourhood that has some whimsy and culture to it."

The little free library on St. George Street is part of a growing trend first started by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis. Three years ago, Mr. Bol erected a free little library in front of his home to honour his late mother, a former teacher and book lover. He then partnered with friend Rick Brooks to spread the idea, which has since expanded across the United States, into Canada and around the world.

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The St. George Street library is bigger than most, which typically are the size of an old mini-fridge. Some have grown to include free vegetables, knick-knacks and doggy bags to passersby.

Mr. Bol estimates there to be around 2,500 globally, while a Google map plotting some of them shows locations as far away as Ghana, Pakistan and Lithuania. There is a website dedicated to the project, littlefreelibrary.org.

Rather than take credit for the project, Mr. Bol says it highlights an innate goodness in people and a shared longing for a sense of community fostered through a love of books.

"It's this little peek into the finer side of humanity," he says. "It just kind of opens up people's hearts."

He uses an example from the movie The Wizard of Oz to illustrate: "When Dorothy walks by the Tin Man, she hears this 'Oil! Oil!'" he says. "All I think we have to do is give the community a bit of oil and it starts dancing."

Mr. Bol says he has since received a number of kind notes and phone calls from strangers.

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"My wife would say, 'Who's this Nina? She says she loves you!' And I'd say, 'I don't know know Nina!'" he says with a laugh.

To date, there are about five little free libraries in the Metro Vancouver area. Cheryl Shizgal first heard about the project in late March and, by mid-May, had crafted one out of an old television stand and placed it outside her home on East 26th Avenue near Fraser Street.

The simple move has spurred neighbours – some who have hardly socialized in decades – to talk, she says.

"We live on a street that is very, very, very multicultural and our neighbours don't often have reasons to talk to each other," she says. "It does actually seem to bring everyone out. It gets neighbours doing something together, and it was really easy."

A personal highlight, Ms. Shizgal says, is seeing the eyes of her two daughters, ages five and seven, light up when someone is outside perusing the little library.

"It's very simple and close to the heart," she says. "It's at the core of who we are in many, many ways. It's not complicated, it's just sweet."

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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