Neighborhood book exchanges popping up throughout Tampa Bay
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09/30/13 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Friday
Tags: books, Mitzi Gordon, book exchange, Little Free Library, literature

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Mitzi Gordon of Bluebird books has opened four book exchange boxes in the Tampa Bay area, the latest in Seminole Heights.


photo by Photo courtesy Openbookexchange.org

There’s a new kind of library in town. Little blue boxes not much larger than a mail box. Mitzi Gordon started Blue Bird Books in 2011 with a bus that traveled around promoting literacy and art. Now she’s expanded those efforts to create a book exchange where residents in the Tampa Bay area can take and leave books.

That’s Mitzi Gordon of Blue Bird Books talking about the four locations where Tampa Bay area residents can swap books at no charge. More information about the boxes is on their website.

"I'm the owner of Bluebird books and we had the bus project which was touring. It started in 2011 doing events and selling some books and doing poetry projects and basically that is designed to get people to appreciate the tangible book as a treasure of literature and art. We want to encourage literacy but we want people to appreciate the beauty of tangible books as art objects, as a source of art through collage material or paper arts projects and in any other way that we can. We were looking for different projects to get involved in that would help further that vision and in doing some research in 2012 I stumbled across the little free library program out of Wisconsin. Much like it sounds like, those are little wooden boxes, little... what they call mini libraries that can hold ten to twenty books that they plant in community spaces and it's a free leave a book take a book exchange. At the time that I came across them they had spread all across the country but less than ten were in the state of Florida. And I thought, this is it, this is the perfect thing for Bluebird to sort of foster down here so I started the open book exchange which is our branch of the little free library network. We planted our first book in St. Petersburg in September of 2012. Now it's September of 2013, we're about to install our fourth in Seminole Heights and we'll be celebrating that on Sunday with a cookout. People can come and donate books."

How can people find these locations? Is there a webste or some sort of resource that folks can go to to see where there might be locations near them?

"There is, there are two ways. We have a website for the open book exchange which is openbookexchange.org. It's very simple, just lists some information about the program and it has links to where each of our locations is as well as some press about the project. And then we register each of our book boxes on the little free library network. We also remain connected to that hub that was started out of Wisconsin that has registered little free libraries all over the country. We register them on their map which is searchable so you can find not only the ones that we've installed but ones that other people have installed as well. One of the great things that happened in the process of doing this is that we've received inquiries from people who want to build their own and install their own. Questions like 'how'd you do this?', 'how'd you get started?'. It's had this sort of exponential effect which is great because we don't want to own them all, we just want them to be out there. So yeah, it's been a real community building experience, I feel like. So the little free library website, I believe, is littlefreelibrary.org, but it's searchable."

You mentioned that this is like a take a book, leave a book sort of scenario, so is it really kind of just open to each individual how they go about that? Are there any particular types of books that are recommended? Are you required to bring them back? How does that work?

"We do really try to leave it as open as possible. When each book box is installed we tend to, for lack of a better word, curate the initial collection. Depends on where it is, the first book box went in outside the Studio @620 in downtown St. Petersburg which is an art and performance venue so we filled it up with a lot of art related books. Artist's biographies and some how to stuff, kind of let it start from there and then waited to see what the community brought in. It's really a mixture, there's some modern literature and classic literature. I still go and keep an eye on that one personally. The more book boxes that we get the more I have to basically hand them off to voluntary stewards who agree to maintain and keep them clean and make sure if the book selection starts to get low that they'll fill them back up. But the one at 620 I still try to keep an eye on personally, probably because it's the first one. I see it really becoming a general interest based on the use of the people around. Pretty much anything and everything. When I go to check up on a box I just want to look to see, are any of the books really damaged because if they're really water damaged or they have mildew spots, something like that it's going to damage the other books and be counter productive. Take anything that's overly damaged or if someone is using it as a repository and is putting in seven copies of any one thing. If they're trying to proselytize or they're trying to unload a self published book, which we welcome all of that but in balance. We don't want the boxes to be filled with just one thing. We want it to be a mixture and a conversation. So I'll try to keep a balance and maybe take some of those and spread them out to other boxes if feel like it's too heavy of any one subject or title. Beyond that it's pretty open, if people want to leave self help books, if they think that it's something that helped them and maybe some one else will read it, we'll let that go in there and then any box that is being cared for by a voluntary steward we give them the power to decide and prune. If they don't want books 'for dummies', that help series. If they don't want those in there they can take them out. Text books tend to be a little cumbersome. We really try to keep it fresh and readable and interesting so people will come back thinking 'oh, I wonder if something good is going to be in here this time?' "

How successful do you think this has been so far?

"I'm really happy with how successful the program has been. I always wish that we had more. I want to be able to put one of these in the ground every month but it does pose challenges. We have been funded largely out of pocket up until this point with a few small monetary and supply donations. I've gotten some volunteer labor that helped me build them but it's been a little slow going with other projects but I do feel like I'd like to see as many of these go into the ground as possible but doing four of them in a year, which is about once quarterly, I'm happy with. I'm happy with our exposure so far in terms of what areas we've been able to get into. There's the one in St. Pete, we have one in Sulphur Springs, Tampa, which is right outside the Community Stepping Stone which is more of a youth focused book box although it is utilized by people in the community as well. Community Stepping Stone is an afterschool program with an arts focus curriculum for youth in that area. They do grant work so we're really glad to be partners with them there. We have a book box outside of the Whimzey house is Safety Harbor which is a folk art mecca in that region and that one is very well cared for and maintained by the artists who live there. And then the fourth one which is going into a residential area in Seminole Heights that's really well trafficked. It's right down the street from a neighborhood park and the friends of the library, the Seminole Heights library are involved in that area so I feel like it will be a welcome addition. We really want to keep growing and growing. We've spoken to people at the City of Tampa and worked up a contract to put a book box into Gaslight Park, which I feel like it would be a wonderful location, really heavily trafficked, but we have to get some liability insurance before that can go in the ground. Little things like that are where a little financial support would help us go further as I can only pay for these things out of pocket piecemeal so it tends to slow our progress, I feel like, but we're working on non-profit paperwork and hopefully we'll be able to apply for grants which I think would really help us grow."

Book exchange resources:

Open book exchange

Little free libraries

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