Little Free Libraries primed to city’s renewal

Marney Rich Keenan
  • There are some 20,000 Little Free Libraries around the planet with 1,000 added every month.
  • Kim Kozlowski, a reporter for the Detroit News, wants to make Detroit the LFL capital of the world.
  • In Detroit, where half of adults are functionally illiterate, Kozlowski says impact could be huge.

Last spring, Kim Kozlowski and her husband, Jeff Bennett, erected on the front lawn of their quiet tree-lined street in Ferndale a small glass-enclosed box that holds unlimited potential to change lives. Literally.

The seemingly magical box that rests atop a 4-foot-high pole swathed in climbing ivy is a Little Free Library (LFL) that offer passersby, young and old, “to take a book, leave a book” — all in the spirit of promoting the common good.

Ever since, Kozlowski says the library has been the impetus for conversations unlike any other she’s had in the 10 years she’s lived on Jewell Avenue. From the older woman on her bike who recently took on a babysitting job and thus was enjoying the children’s books, to curious newspaper delivery boys (“For free? Really?”), “every day I could tell a little free library story,” Kozlowski says. “We’ve really started to get to know our neighbors.”

Taking her cue from the momentum, Kozlowski’s now planning for the book-loving movement to play an integral role in revamping her beloved city’s long-suffering image.

No stranger to the benefits of reading — for the last 15 years Kozlowski has covered higher education for The Detroit News — she’s convinced providing access to books promotes community and combats illiteracy. In Detroit, where almost half of adults are functionally illiterate, Kozlowski says the impact could be enormous.

“We know that when children and adults have access to books, it encourages them to read more. And we know that reading enhances vocabulary, knowledge and imagination. It makes you more empathetic toward other people and helps you to succeed in life.”

In that vein, Kozlowski wants to make Detroit the Little Free Library Capital of the World.

“Detroit is our home, we love it here,” she says. “But, for too long, we’ve had this bad reputation for being corrupt, obese, having low test scores. Now that we’re coming out of bankruptcy, we are poised for a comeback. We want to turn the page on that image and be part of the city’s rebirth.”

While there are some 20,000 LFLs around the world, including about 100 in Michigan, there are only a handful in the city.

A month ago, Kozlowski began her fundraising campaign online, aiming to add 313 Little Free Libraries to the city, to honor its 313 area code. Ever the marketer, she chose Sept. 12 as launch day. Instead of Facebook birthday wishes, she arm-twisted her legion of friends to donate to her fundraising campaign, which has an auspicious goal of $25,000. Then she contacted Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, who founded the LFL movement in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2009 as a tribute to his schoolteacher-mother. Bol says he was thrilled by Kozlowski’s enthusiasm (“Kim has that great wonderment of life!”) and is donating some 20 Little Free Libraries to the city next month.

“We’ve donated some libraries when New Orleans was on its way back from the hurricane,” Bol said, “and now we feel honored to be part of the Detroit rebirth.”

Donations started rolling in: one Detroit homeowner who has a home in the city as a vacation rental gave $250. Just last week, Kozlowski got a call from a man who wanted to give her no less than 148 crates filled with an assortment of books — many of them newly published — from an abandoned warehouse in Romulus.

“We thought we could put them in our garage, but we’ve had to rent a storage space,” Kozlowski says. “We have thousands of books. It is unbelievable.”

While “stewards” of Little Free Libraries can purchase ready-made structures (they range in price from $175 to $1,000) or build their own, Kozlowski chose to have hers made by End Grain Woodworking Co. in Detroit, which uses salvaged wood from the city to make everything from picture frames to restaurant tables.

“The libraries are such an awesome idea and we like to think this campaign is not only promoting reading and literacy, but also the reuse of reclaimed materials from deconstructed homes in the city,” says End Grain’s co-founder, Sam Constantine.

With little to gain other than the knowledge that she’s doing her part to help make the world a better place, Kozlowksi says this is the meaningful cause she’s been looking for. Best friend and LFL collaborator Cindy Dyson says Kozlowksi has always had a pay-it-forward mentality.

“Kim has a big heart,” says Dyson, a novelist living in Montana. Dyson is the techie responsible for “It’s what makes her a good reporter, because she believes in giving people information. And the same applies to reading, too. When you’re an avid reader, you realize what people are missing. The libraries are Kim’s way of giving back.”