Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn’s Little Free Library isn’t just a good-karma fixture for fellow readers. It provides a fascinating glimpse into human nature and what people do when they think no one’s watching.

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Lit Life

My spouse gave me a Little Free Library for my birthday. He’s very handy, and he built a good one — roomy, sturdy, with a glass window in the door, the better for peering at books.

This was a helpful gift designed to solve a problem, but first, a little background. According to the just-published “The Little Free Library Book” (Coffee House Press, $25), there are 25,000 of these structures worldwide, spread across 50 states and 80 countries.

The basic definition: “a box of books, posted in an accessible spot, often in a residential yard near a sidewalk.” The idea is take a book, leave a book.

I need people to take them. Over the 17 years I have had this job, I have gotten on every publisher’s mailing list in the country. Those books come to The Seattle Times, but I am also on a television show that features books, and on a board that gives out book prizes in six different categories. No matter how much I try to keep on top of it, I get buried by books. Sometimes I don’t see the top of my dining-room table for months on end.

The Little Free Library seemed like a perfect alternative (my main solution is still to box them up and give them to the Seattle Public Library). I could spread the wealth around!

And so I have, but there’s an added benefit: a Little Free Library presents a fantastic opportunity for people-watching. Here are some of my neighborhood Little Free Librarian patrons:

•The busy mom. She has a baby in a frontpack. She’s holding the hand of a little boy, who is kicking the Little Free Library as hard as he can to see if he can get it to fall over. In the other hand is a dog leash, and at the end is a hyperactive Australian shepherd, which has already encircled the Little Free Library twice. But Mom is not giving up — she’s still looking for a good book. Oh, honey, I’ve been there.

•The insomniac. She walks by at around 4 a.m. of a morning. She uses a flashlight; useful when you are perusing a Little Free Library in the dark. She generally leaves with a book; you can get in a lot of reading when you wake up regularly at 3 a.m.

•The wannabe book critic. He stopped by one morning when I was digging dandelions, told me about every book he had taken away from the Little Free Library and why he did or didn’t like it. Buddy, have I got a job for you.

•The picky reader. This patron rifles through every book in the Little Free Library, leaves without one, and doesn’t straighten up the mess she left behind. What? You don’t like books about Canadian sports stars? You’ve never wanted to read an entire book about Bob Hope?

•The cruiser. A woman in a parka walks down the street. A car follows, close to the curb. Should I tell her that she is being stalked? Well, no, actually she is hitting all the Little Free libraries in the neighborhood, and her partner in bibliophilia (or book theft) is following behind her.

I’m not going to worry about it. The key to having a Little Free Library is to release control. Take a book, leave a book. A lot of people feel an obligation to reciprocate.

You can control the outbox, but you can’t control the inbox.

Do I want my neighbors to think that I actually bought and read “How to Hook a Hottie,” which sat in my LFL for a week before someone took it away? I think of my heroes, reader-service librarians, and how their mission is to find each patron their book. Who am I to judge? Why worry if people are judging me? My motto is, “Every Book Its Reader.” Because someone finally did take that Bob Hope biography.

Meanwhile, I have saved the best LFL customer, the grateful recipient, for last. My neighbor Conrad strolled by the other evening, poodle in tow. Conrad thanked me, several times, for an obscure book about Abraham Lincoln I had deposited there. Conrad is an amateur Lincoln scholar. I never knew. That is the gift of the Little Free Library; you get to know your neighbors, in all sorts of ways.

What is your Little Free Library story? Send them — bizarre, inspiring, off-the-wall, to me at, or leave a comment online. Want to start your own? Go to

Meanwhile, to the person who dropped off the Tom Perrotta novel — thank you. And to my neighbors, thank you for not asking the inevitable question — where do you get all these books?