By J. River Lerner
As I walk around certain neighborhoods in Oakland, I notice the Little Free Libraries popping up like slow-growing mushrooms. Their caps bulge, birdhouse-like, on top of slender, painted-lumber stalks. One or two more with each season, spreading old how-to manuals and well-thumbed mystery novels like so many spores. And like mushrooms, though you can never predict exactly where they’ll sprout, it’s always in a predictable habitat: owner-occupied homes with well tended flowers and small signs that say “Science is Real” and “Our neighbors are welcome”.
That they spring up in those yards, in these neighborhoods, isn’t an accident. Aesthetically, culturally, organizationally, financially: the little libraries absolutely shout ‘landowning class’. They’re built like little cabins, with shingles! They distribute books, one of the only things that we already have robust public infrastructure to freely distribute! There’s a multi-million dollar nonprofit that ‘charters’ the libraries and sells $400 kits to build them! And besides, they’re somehow exactly the sort of home improvement that probably increases a home’s value, but that your landlord, for inscrutable reasons, would never let you build.
So it’s not without reason that Little Free Libraries have become a symbol of gentrification and center-left land-ownership. But I still find them utterly inspiring. Because for all their baggage, these little libraries present a non-utopian vision of what anarchist economic infrastructure can look like, and provide a pragmatic blueprint for getting us there.
Little Free Libraries, fundamentally, are infrastructure to facilitate mutual aid. Rather than the casual transactionalism of a yard sale or petite capitalism of a used bookshop, they are genuinely free and non-coercive, requiring neither monetary payment nor bureaucratic limbo. Rather than the careless charity of a box of books left on the sidewalk, or the structured state distribution of a public library, they encourage those who take to also give, and those who give to take; in fact, the host of the little free library, though often dispro-portionately supplying books, gets the benefit of having this community-replenished library right at their door. And as physical spaces, they’re able to exist independent of, and for those without access to, the increasingly monopolized and segmented internet sphere.
For our communities to flourish, and for us to provide viable alternatives for survival outside of the state and capitalism, mutual aid cannot just be a series of one-off events, acts, and campaigns. We need to build structured opportunities for mutual aid into the physical fabric of our communities, at the most intimate and local level.
I think this starts by allowing ourselves to imagine places for community members to share goods of all sorts. In Little Free Libraries we have a robust, active model of hyperlocal and hyper-specific micro-distribution centers throughout our streets, stocked and maintained by the community, providing books without coercive demands of payment or registration.
So, why just books?
Let’s imagine little free everything, all our daily needs distributed via lovingly labeled shoe boxes, dilapidated but well-muraled file cabinets, and excessively bedazzled tool sheds throughout our neighborhoods.
There are long histories of community pantries and fridges to share food within neighborhoods. What else can we build infrastructure to share? Let’s imagine little free pharmacies, with tampons and tylenol and the extra toothbrushes from when buying a 4 pack was only 1 dollar more. With QR codes linking information on no-fee clinics and abortion access. Little free auto shops with the half pint of oil or half gallon of washer fluid you didn’t need, and a link to a whatsapp group for help or advice from knowledgeable neighbors. Little free costume libraries and art-supply drawers and toy shops and seed shares!
I want to walk down my street and see passion fruit vines growing over the crates where canned lentils and peaches can be found. To tuck tightly rolled t-shirts into chain link fences organized by size and find my new summer sandals in a repurposed newspaper box. To steward a little free kitchen supply on my Tuesday afternoons, labeling new arrivals with colored stickers so I can move the oldest to another location if space gets tight. I want to place well-labeled batches of soup made with my grandmother’s recipes into a parking lot fridge muraled with bright flowers and birds.
This vision has inspired me to begin building these genre-specific little free stores in my own neighborhood. As I do so, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to divorce these new projects from Little Free Libraries’ petit-bourgeois ethos. I think we can do this not just by moving beyond books, but broadening aesthetic possibilities, and placing them in reliable public spaces as opposed to land that we own or rent. Why replicate suburban, birdhouse aesthetics in these projects? Put a 5-gallon tub on cinder blocks; give it a little sign. Zip tie a milk crate to a chain link fence, or hang it from a tree. Glue instructions with what to leave onto a dresser or file cabinet that someone is giving away. Landlord not into it? Try the empty lot next door, the center median, the more chill neighbors down the block. What’s important is creating a space with a clear enough purpose to facilitate community use, and upkeep, and love, and stewardship.
This is something that Little Free Library, as a phenomenon, has done brilliantly. The concise, three-word title tells you exactly how to use the space. More importantly, it calls out an ideology behind that space. A means of distribution that is piecemeal, hyperlocal, and utterly non-coercive. Naming our spaces can inspire care, identity, mythology. “The Ursula K. Le Guin Memorial Pantry” and “Little Free Shoe Store” both carry more cachet than an unlabeled box of food or shoes. The name allows that box to become a place, not just a resource to neighbors but a part of the fabric of neighborhood identity and mythology, shaping our local geography to facilitate mutual aid and communal upkeep of infrastructure. And even, perhaps, inspiring more little free distribution centers to follow in its wake.
So this season, new kinds of mushrooms will grow, in different habitats, spreading different spores. But mushrooms are just the fruiting body. If you listen closely, they will always speak softly of the messy mycelium of interconnected mutual aid networks, always growing, just below our feet.