top of page
  • Writer's pictureellencdonker

TURNING OUR FAMILY'S 'BOOK PROBLEM' INTO A COMMUNITY WELLSPRING by Donny Levit

Launching the Little Free Library that could



We admit it: Our family has a book problem.


My wife, Nicole, and I suffer from a terrible case of tsundoku, a Japanese term that might explain that stack of books that you haven’t cracked open. When we first moved to our Brooklyn apartment, Nicole and I discovered that we each had copies of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and that huge Gotham tome. Nicole had Murakami’s 1Q84 in Japanese, and I had the English translation. And yet, we kept them all.


The kids aren’t much better. They regularly check out five books at a time from the Maplewood Library.


Our book problem was getting worse and worse … until a particularly dreary winter day. The kids’ noses and our dog’s snout were pressed up against the window as they searched for something to elevate their spirits from the postholiday doldrums.


After some kvetching from the kids, we all stumbled over to a muddy patch on our lawn near the sidewalk. “What would you all think about a getting a Little Free Library?” I asked. The vote was unanimous. The kids charged up to their rooms to figure out which books they wanted to donate, and then we headed to the hardware store, where we began an intense debate over paint color. By the end of the day, we were stewards of Little Free Library Charter #159933.


The Little Free Library organization boasts a network of more than 150,000 miniature libraries spread out over 120 countries. The term “steward” simply means that you’re responsible for your LFL’s upkeep. As opposed to owning an LFL, a steward maintains it for the community.


We struggled a bit coming up with the right moniker for ours. Using our last name didn’t seem very stewardlike. We wanted to celebrate the right person. And let’s be honest: Librarians are the unheralded rock stars of the literary and research worlds.


Zoia Horn was a Ukrainian Jew who emigrated with her family from Odesa to Brooklyn in the 1920s. After attending Brooklyn College and the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, she was hired as head of the reference department at Bucknell University.


In 1971 Horn received a call from the FBI requesting library records of the “Harrisburg Seven,” a group of antiwar activists allegedly engaged in criminal plots. When Horn was subpoenaed to provide information on the group’s library activity, she refused on the grounds that her testimony would “threaten intellectual and academic freedom.”


“Government spying in homes, in libraries and universities,” she said, “inhibits and destroys this freedom.”


Jailed for three weeks because she refused to testify, Horn was released after the prosecutor’s case was found to be inconclusive.


We’re proud to say that freedom fighter is the inspiration for the Zoia Horn Little Free Library of Maplewood. Around our house, we refer to it simply as “The Zoia.”


Our grand opening in June included a ribbon-cutting and a Dr. Seuss reading from the kids. Neighbors showed up with books including Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Judy Blume novels, as well as works by Jeffrey Eugenides and Shakespeare.


One visitor dropped off a heavy box meticulously packed with holiday books. “You can hold onto these until later this year,” she told me.


I occasionally catch the kids’ noses and our dogs’ snouts (we’ve added a second canine) pressed up against the window while a passerby is searching for a book in our LFL. I encourage the kids to give the browser some privacy, as Zoia Horn would have recommended. But we can’t blame them for engaging in the analog pleasure of watching someone take a book.


In October we filled our LFL with a heap of Halloween titles. Now it’s time to dust off that box of holiday books we received in June.


We know the postholiday doldrums will eventually return, so we look forward to you trudging over in your winter boots to check out The Zoia. We’re near the intersection of Rutgers Street and Tuscan Road.


And to all of you who have dropped off books from your collection: There’s a good chance your neighbors are digging into them as you read this.


Please follow us on Instagram: @zoiahornlittlefreelibrary.


Donny Levit, a writer and Maplewood resident, is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies: 10 Stories. You can check out his radio shows on Instagram: @undertheinfluenceradio, @newishradio, @kindofpoolradio.

bottom of page