Salem residents promote reading and build community, one free library at a time

Sarah Chilcote organizes books in her Little Free Library on D Street in Northeast Salem (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Some want to help local kids get books. Others are in it to meet neighbors.

Dozens of Salem homeowners have erected miniature libraries in their yards and parking strips, becoming part of a movement to encourage literacy and build community.

Some are a single shelf inside a wooden box, while others are more elaborate. But they share a common purpose: anyone can take a book from inside or leave one for someone else to enjoy.

Many are registered with Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy and has 90,000 chartered miniature libraries in countries around the world. The City of Salem has guidelines for the structures.

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Sarah Chilcote and her husband set up a library outside their home on D Street in northeast Salem about five years ago. It’s a repurposed kitchen cabinet with several shelves, giving it a larger capacity than many.

Chilcote said two of their three children were voracious readers and she was struggling to keep up.

“We were going to the library in the summer like every other day,” she said. “They were going through the entire inventory.”

The kids decorated the cabinet and enjoyed having a way to find new books and share with other kids in the neighborhood, Chilcote said. In the first years they had it running, books were taken faster than they were able to replace them.

“We couldn’t keep them in stock at all,” she said. “We’d go to garage sales and estate sales and just load up.”

Because it’s around the corner from Hoover Elementary School and on an arterial, the library gets a lot of foot traffic, Chilcote said. Her neighbors have pledged to keep it stocked with books, and they work to have options for all ages in both English and Spanish.

Most library stewards agreed it takes some work to keep their offerings high-quality and relevant. Sometimes people dump large numbers of books that aren’t likely to move: old romance novels, or multiple copies of self-published works.

Cory Folkert, who has a free library outside his northeast Salem home, does some pruning to make sure books stay relevant. He’ll store extra books in his garage and put them out strategically when the library is running low, he said.

Folkert’s family set up the library a few years ago after reading a newspaper article about Little Free Library.

He hoped it would give him an opportunity to talk to more people about books as they stopped by.

“It’s just kind of a cool way to meet people, people that are more apt just to walk by the neighborhood nowadays,” he said.

He’s also found some gems in the years running it: some lifestyle advice and household books from the 1940s and 50s which found a new home on his coffee table, for example.

“It was just fascinating to see the different worldview from back then,” he said.

It also helps add variety when reading to his toddler.

“You get tired of reading the same books over and over,” he said.

Chartered Little Free Libraries are mapped on the organization’s website, and many stewards include a message about why they set up the library.

“Our Library is an ice breaker! It gives us a reason to talk to people walking by and asking them what their interests are,” wrote one southeast Salem resident with a library on Lee Street. “We feel the Library has been a beacon of light in our neighborhood, and as we have cleaned up and renovated our old 1935 home, many homes around us are cleaning, planting flowers and stopping to read the notes on (the) sidewalk and take a book!”

A Little Free Library on D Street in Northeast Salem (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Retired teacher Kathy Martell is the force behind many of Salem’s Little Free Libraries. She taught in Salem-Keizer elementary schools for 30 years and is a longtime member of the Delta Kappa Gamma Educational Foundation.

Martell sees the small book exchanges as a way to help kids who might not be able to go to the public library.

“There’s a lot of kids that parents won’t take them. They don’t have the time,” she said.

In 2017, she got a grant from the foundation to buy materials for 10 free libraries, and partnered with Joe Simon, a South Salem wood shop teacher, to build them.

Simon’s students worked in teams, making the miniature libraries as a project for their spring class. He said the project worked well because finding money for materials is always a challenge. It also let students work on roofing with shingles.

He personally went out and helped install some of the libraries in the summer of 2018.

“To see ‘em out and see ‘em used pretty cool,” Simon said.

His students returned to the challenge the following year, making five libraries of their own design.

“Some people really took to it,” he said.

Simon said his students would gladly build more if someone supplied the wood and other items. Materials for a library cost about $80 to $100, he said, far less than the cost of many premade libraries available online.

Martell found those libraries homes in the area: some with homeowners, others outside daycare centers or stores that pledged to be stewards.

“The people who have them just really love them,” she said.

One sits outside her home on a quiet street in West Salem. She collects classroom library books from retiring teachers and uses them to keep things fresh.

Her library initially focused on kids, but she branched out to adult books and has found them circulating quickly too. One woman stops by regularly with her children and grabs a book for each of them, she said.

On Halloween, she encourages trick or treaters to pick out a book along with their candy.

Once, a woman stopped by her library and poured over each book, reading the description carefully before taking a number of them.

“It was great. I didn’t care, I had plenty of books,” Martell said.

This story was updated to include the City of Salem’s Little Free Library guidelines.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.