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story.lead_photo.caption Julie Smith/News TribuneLetha Pipers at the Little Free Library she created in her westside Jefferson City neighborhood.

At her library on Hobbs Road, tucked among the colorful titles, Letha Piper has a little notebook of love notes.

The tell-tale scrawl of children's writing decorates the first few pages.

"A little girl wrote me a message and said it was her favorite place to go and be able to sit and read a book," Piper said. "She said, 'I go through your library and read a couple of books while I'm sitting there.'"

When she walks out her front door to Lemons Library, Jill Lemons often finds slips of paper waiting for her, too.

"They'll leave little love notes out here on the porch," Lemons said. "'Can you find x, y, z books for me?'"

The libraries' patrons aren't always spotted in action, but the notes, books flying off the shelves and, in Piper's case, the breakfast food wrappers often left behind are signs the Little Free Libraries are working.

With just more than a decade in the works, the Hudson, Wisconsin-based nonprofit Little Free Library has grown exponentially, last year surpassing 100,000 registered little libraries in more than 100 countries worldwide. Included in that total count, as of July 2021, are 11 registered libraries in Jefferson City.

The first Little Free Library in town still stands at 1012 Winston Drive. Steward Leslie Davis said it was built and registered sometime in 2012-13 — it's been so long she can't entirely remember, but the library has become a landmark for the neighborhood. It shows its age, too. The official sign, bearing the organization name, is a white wooden block that sits right above the door. Today's charter signs are made out of aluminum.

A library has also long been a staple at the Common Ground Community Building. Since 2014, the bright blue box has sat as the centerpiece of the garden when it was built as an Eagle Scout's special project. Residents of the area come and go, often stopping to rifle through the titles and take or trade a book.

But recently, libraries have popped up, dotting the map on the west, east and near the Missouri River alike. At least five of the city's 11 Little Free Libraries were built and registered in 2020-21.

Registered libraries have an official charter sign and number and are added to the worldwide map.

The nonprofit's mission since day one has remained the same: to share good books and bring communities together. As the years have passed, it has filled another need, expanding and providing book access to high-need communities. The key to its success in a place like Mid- Missouri, however, relies heavily on individual volunteers willing to place and maintain a library in their front lawns or at schools.

For Piper, a Little Free Library had always been a dream. That dream started while she was working as a room mother in a second- grade classroom. She often shared books with her children, and one day, a young boy expressed delight when gifted a book.

"'This is the first book I've ever had of my own,'" Piper recalled him saying. "And I thought, second grade and its your first book in your life? My kids always had tons of books."

Piper decided when she retired, she would open a Little Free Library. She made it happen, opening her library and an accompanying Facebook group in September.

"I always knew I wanted to do a little library. I wanted to bring that to our community and let people get out and be able to get books," Piper said. "It was really important that we got it done during the pandemic, because if they couldn't go to the library, at least they felt they could come here and come get a book."

On the west end of town, where Piper's library sits at 611 Hobbs Road, a drive to downtown's Missouri River Regional Library takes 10 minutes; on a bike, 30. And while MRRL was closed, as it was for weeks, the option was, well, not an option. Piper lamented that fact.

"When I had decided to do it, I had known that there weren't many (libraries) on this end of town and that's one reason I felt it very important to bring it here," Piper said.

Lemons, who runs Lemons Library at 1208 Moreland Ave., said the Little Free Libraries offer an opportunity for readers to trade out books, especially since MRRL's bookmobile doesn't always stop in the area.

"It's too close to the library for that to happen," she pointed out. "But a lot of kids can't ride their bikes all the way downtown, so they come here to trade out and find new things to read."

As the current library media specialist at Jefferson City High School, Lemons knows what it means to have access to books — and to not. Reading can be a hobby, but it's also fundamental, she said, and children need books to stimulate their minds.

In a classroom, Lemons said, there's often so many parameters to reading it can be disheartening or unenjoyable. When children have access to materials outside of the classroom, that's when the spark can ignite.

"My goal before I moved from Moreau Heights (Elementary) to the high school (was) for there to be a Little Free Library at each of the elementary schools so that kids could have a spot to get something before they get on the bus," she said. "I know that a lot of our kids live out on Glovers Ford Road and so that they could have an opportunity to get something that they can call their own."

And the more opportunities children are given to read, Piper said, the more likely they are to read. Having a Little Free Library allows her to contribute to filling in the gaps of book access while sharing her love for reading.

It's not uncommon for neighbors or friends she knows in education to ask for help, either. Piper once had a speech therapist send her a long list of a hundred-some books of which she was able to find around 40 to send off. One mother needed books to use for homeschooling. Another woman had just moved to Jefferson City and had books to give away. She contacted Piper, saying she heard somewhere Piper collected books.

"Collect books?" Piper said with a smile. "I have books all over the place!"

When they started their libraries, Piper and Lemons worried they wouldn't have enough books. Or, they wouldn't have patrons. Now, they almost have too many — sometimes books, sometimes patrons.

After a weekend away for the Fourth of July, Lemons and her family came back to find their little library full again. Surprisingly, she said, she hasn't had to dig into her personal stash of books; neighbors will clean out their shelves at home and trade, replacing titles constantly. But, if she had to, she would certainly have enough books of her own to keep it going.

Piper, too. She has bins full of books in her garage.

She's been "blessed with so many books," she said.

"And I just want to get those (books) into the hands of the ones that need them," Piper said.

———

Situated under the dappled shade of a large tree is Storybook Castle, its blue and cream peaks standing proud and nearly as tall as its owner.

Natalie Cook was floored when she saw it. The Little Free Library was a Christmas surprise built by her father-in-law, Lawrence Cook. Since seeing her friend, Toni Lannert's, Little Free Library on Rainbow Drive, she hinted (rather strong hints, her father-in-law quipped) at the idea of starting one herself.

"As a child, my mother read to me, and my grandparents read to me and my brothers," Natalie said. "I grew up in the country, in southeast Kansas, so there wasn't anything to do. We didn't have cable or close neighbors or anything like that. I started reading to take up time and keep myself occupied."

Some of the first books she got hooked on were the "Encyclopedia Brown" series. Her love for reading grew, and the hours she'd spend in her high school library only multiplied. In college, even as she pursued a psychology degree, English and literature were her comfort spaces. She still remembers the Gothic literature class that introduced her to "the classics," like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Jane Eyre series.

"When I was a kid, reading kept me occupied — out of trouble, probably," Natalie said. "And it just can take you away from whatever your current reality or current mindset is into something totally different.

"It's an escape, which is probably commonly said, but it is an escape. You're into it, and you're not thinking of anything else."

That escape is what she hopes to replicate at her Little Free Library. The library is loosely modeled after Cinderella's Disney castle, amended to fit two rows of books, adult/teen fiction and children's books alike, and withstand strong winds.

"I have a fairly good imagination and some artistic talent. Keeping it a secret from Natalie, this is what we got," Lawrence said.

The intrigue of the library's design has worked, Natalie believes.

"I hoped with mine being kind of catchy — and it's pretty noticeable when you see it — that people would be curious about it and want to check it out. And that's worked, since books from all age ranges have been taken from the library," she said.

It's especially drawn younger children, perhaps those who don't know it's a library but are fascinated by its design.

"And even if maybe they didn't want a book when they see its a library, they might consider taking one," Natalie said.

The ability to customize your library plays a large part in what makes Little Free Libraries so unique around the world.

More recently, a replica of the Governor's Mansion was placed outside on Madison Street. It houses — you guessed it — a Little Free Library, unveiled by first lady Teresa Parson in March during National Reading Month.

Piper's library, on the other hand, is housed in an old newspaper stand, the St. Louis Sun. The white lettering remains printed on the front, but a roof was added in May. During the holidays, a wreath adorned the library. For the Fourth of July, a set of American flags waved around its base and next to the bench Piper and her husband set out.

Lemons Library was created from a kitchen cabinet found on Facebook Marketplace. Lemons and her husband bought it for $20, painted it and added a roof before setting it outside on legs. Surrounding her library is lush green grass in the shade of a tree.

The neighborhood children will ride their bikes to her home and sit in the yard to read to each other, Lemons said. Other times, when she's out on the porch, people will stop and ask, "What are you reading now?"

She and her husband call that "neighboring."

Just inside Natalie's home, her American bulldog mix, Hank, watches the street from his perch on the couch.

"When I hear him get stirred up, I come out and look, and sometimes I see people out there looking through the books," she said. "I leave them alone — I never really bother people — but it's so exciting to see people out there taking a book or leaving a book."

She checks her library almost every day. When she sees a book that she didn't put in herself (hers are often marked with an embosser bearing the name of her library), the excitement bubbles up again.

One day, as she was unloading groceries from her car, a woman and her two young boys stopped to look through the library. They exchanged a few words, the mother telling Natalie her boys "just love it" and visit occasionally to see what's new and return or exchange books.

"That just tickled me to death," Natalie laughed, "because that's exactly why I wanted it."

"I think that's really exciting to know that people (in the neighborhood) are excited about it," Piper said of her library on Hobbs Road.

Piper though, still has a lot of books. She hopes to eventually stock a few more libraries — libraries she hopes will come to fruition at elementary schools around the city.

Thorpe Gordon Elementary could soon see its own Little Free Library, Piper said, with librarian Melanie Thompson potentially taking the lead. Thompson herself is no stranger to literacy efforts, helping organize the annual JC Reads Week and bringing innovation to education.

Piper also hopes to bring a Little Free Library to Lawson Elementary School.

Little Free Libraries are not a one and done for many of the stewards who host them, whether it be at schools or in their own front lawns.

Piper sees it as a long-term project.

"I feel like as long as I can do it, I will do it. It's so important," she said. "If you give (children) that fundamental of reading, you are giving them a lifetime of learning.

"And I truly believe with a book you can go anywhere in the world. You can learn anything."

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