This past week while visiting the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation on University Avenue, Todd Bol leaned back in an office chair and talked expansion. There are 531 small towns in Minnesota that have yet to erect one of his birdhouse-sized Little Free Libraries. He aims to correct that.
About a year ago, the Twin Cities was home to three of his boxy library exchanges. Today, there are 75 registered with his website, and probably many more erected by owners of their own accord. That number is about to explode.
The Mall of America is distributing 20 Little Free Libraries across the Twin Cities, including two along the Central Corridor in St. Paul. St. Paul-based Boy Scout Troop 67 is giving out another six. Lennar Homes is giving out 20. The North Woods Shop in Burnsville plans to distribute five. The list goes on.
"In Minneapolis, we're talking to the school district about putting one on every block in North Minneapolis," said Bol, who started the popular booksharing effort three years ago from his Hudson, Wis. home.
Bol, who just returned from judging an architectural competition involving 70 Little Free Libraries in Louisiana, is happy to see his idea catch on, but that doesn't mean he's satisfied. These days, Bol is thinking about Africa.
On the African contintent, owners of 40 Little Free Libraries have registered locations. Bol is eager to see distribution in Africa catch fire, as it has in the Twin Cities. Fellow co-founder Richard Brooks is a former chairman of a Sri Lankan-based village development organization.
Bol is imagining book clubs where students in St. Paul read along with friends half-a-world away and dissect the literature on Skype. He has yet to begin discussions with the St. Paul Public Schools, but he figures it's just a matter of time.
Bol grew up in Stillwater and North St. Paul and put himself through the University of Wisconsin River Falls driving a Yellow Cab in the Twin Cities in the 1970s. He went on to work in international economic development and sold off major interest in the nurse staffing and scholarship program he founded some years ago.
In 2009, he built his first Little Free Library outside his home in Hudson as a tribute to his mother, who had died eight years earlier. The idea caught on, and his nonprofit now employs five full-time employees and five part-timers, while drawing on the efforts of any number of volunteers.
Little Free Libraries have sprouted up in 50 countries and 50 states. The owners of some 3,000 have registered with his website, which for $25 gets them a tag on the nonprofit's Google map, an official Little Free Library sign and free books. Bol figures the roster of libraries is growing at the pace of about 200 a week.
It's hard to tell, as about 80 percent of Little Free Library owners, or "stewards," build their own. The others buy them from his nonprofit for $250 to $600, or receive them as gifts from organizations and donors.
Skeptics roll their eyes as what could be dismissed as a trendy, feel-good measure, but Bol thinks of his creations as a hands-on literacy campaign and much-needed drive for civic involvement. The libraries tend to fill up quickly with everything from philosophy books to children's books, creating an opportunity for neighbors to mingle with their kids.
"It's like having a front porch that extends to your sidewalk," he said.
"You sure have got me excited," said Nieeta Presley, executive director of the Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, which debuted a Little Free Library this week at 774 W. University Ave. Another went up in front of Bangkok Cuisine, at 432 W. University Ave.
Presley sees the Little Free Libraries as part of an effort to beautify and promote neighborhoods along the light rail, in part by encouraging pedestrian-friendly improvements. "Can you imagine people walking up and down the avenue and stopping to pick up books?" she said.
Meanwhile, Metric Giles, an urban farmer and community organizer, helped Como Park High School students build 10 Little Free Libraries this summer with the PeaceJam Foundation, which has distributed them to recreation centers and a church.
Bol is talking to AARP about a possible booksharing program targeted to older, isolated adults. That could entail distributing free libraries to folks who agree to volunteer with the elderly.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.