Annie Berendes’ library runs on an unusual set of rules. No return policy. No check-out. In fact, the library is the size of a small cupboard. Ambling bibliophiles might grab two and give two, or just peek at the inventory.
Berendes’ Little Free Library is part of an international movement, but the focus is local. It’s all part of meeting neighbors, Berendes said, a way of encouraging a sense of community without being “in your face.”
“It’s not mine,” Berendes said. “It’s not ours. It kind of becomes whatever the neighborhood wants it to be.”
Berendes’ family put up the stand earlier this month after ordering it from the Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that has worked with families and community groups to open more than 10,000 pint-size libraries in 49 countries.
Co-founder Rick Brooks said the little libraries started with a single stand in Hudson, Wis., and grew to 400 stands in 2011. At first, the goal was to open more libraries than Andrew Carnegie. Brooks’ group swept by that goal — about 2,500 — last summer, and the small libraries continued to snowball.
Little Free Library has given away more than 100 stands to communities that couldn’t otherwise afford them, Brooks said. The group offers kits and instructions for ambitious curators, but it also sells the finished product — a model house-shaped stand with a windowed door and enough shelf space for a pile of paperbacks and hardbacks.
Inmates at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution make the little book stands as part of a community service program. The inmates earn college credit from Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, and their handiwork is donated through Little Free Library.
Each inmate-made library is marked with a seal, prompting an occasional letter of thanks from the recipient, said Ron Brewer, education director for the prison.
“That’s a positive reward for them,” Brewer said.
Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church, 4141 Mormon Coulee Road, opened one of the small libraries this spring. Church member Don Skibba curates the stand with his wife, taking donations at the church and putting them on the stand for the community.
The library is all about getting people to crack books, Skibba said.
“We just thought it would be a good idea to promote reading,” Skibba said.
Keeping up a Little Free Library often requires setting a tone for the type of books available, Berendes said. She keeps a big box of extras ready to be put out if the stand is picked over.
Books in the Berendes’ library are a wide assortment, mirroring Berendes’ taste — newer nonfiction — but also mixed with donations that come in from the community.
There have been some pleasant surprises, Berendes said, such as a big book about well-maintained Victorian homes. Cookbooks always fly off the shelf.
Some people leave old undesirables, such as 50-year-old self-help books — not her style, Berendes said. She yanks them if they don’t fit the mold.
“I’d like to keep it a little more contemporary,” she said.
Good Shepard’s book stand carries a couple of Bibles and religious reads, and another in front of Hintgen Elementary School stocks children’s books.
But the Berendes family brought the idea with them from Madison. Gabe Berendes remembers getting a kick out of the free book stands he saw on walks through the city.
“It was just always a really exciting thing,” Berendes said.
After two years of living in La Crosse, the family wanted to give neighbors that same sense of excitement. They also wanted to make a gesture to the community — a display of openness without encroaching.
Connecting with the community is what Little Free Library is all about, and that’s probably what has made them such a success, Brooks said.
“Neighborhoods and real people, particularly with families, want to be a part of something that makes them feel good,” Brooks said. “The sense of community seems to trump everything.”