Arts + Culture,  Community,  Literature

Little Big Libraries

Map of the 5 little free libraries in the Danforth neighbourhood

Reading is the root of most of our interesting thoughts. Once we immerse ourselves in books, especially in children’s titles, we end up creating unfathomable associations inside our brains. Think genius girl who avenges abuse of authority through telekinesis, angry lonely kid who becomes king amongst monsters, or underpants superhero with “wedgie power.” Along the same line, a book exchange initiative, like the Little Free Library, can forge the most incredible connections between people.

It was American film director John Waters who famously recommended not sleeping with people who don’t have books; not letting them explore us until they have explored the world of libraries. Although I wouldn’t go as far as that, I definitely share the belief that those who find pleasure in reading are more inclined to find pleasure in everything else. If you still aren’t sure about this, let the stewards of my two favourite little libraries in the Danforth prove my point.

Right side of the book box decorated with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince illustrations at 83 Gough Ave, Kathleen Sandusky & Fritz Roth's house
Photo by Daphne Guima

Kathleen Sandusky and Fritz Roth are a communications consultant and a professor of genetics, respectively. A couple raising a blended family with seven kids in their teens and 20s, who moved to the Danforth in 2021, right in the midst of the pandemic. Incidentally, it was after spending the period of mandatory confinement distributing their children’s books through the little libraries in their old neighbourhood, that they decided to install their own book box outside their new place at 83 Gough Ave.

With the global panic about coronavirus, we all intuitively groped for personal strategies to find joy and unapologetic laughs. Some baked, some danced, some took remote courses, and some, like Kathleen and Fritz, handed out books. “The most memorable was when she grabbed a hilarious book from the 70s that featured illustrations for how to cut kids’ hair, and threatened our kids that she was going to try out the techniques on them, when salons and barbers were closed.”

Interacting with little libraries not only helped the couple survive isolation, but also helped the family strengthen ties through incessant change. Their book box, decorated with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince illustrations, was painted collectively as well. Kathleen and one of their kids illustrated, while another child suggested painting the box to look like their house, and Fritz painted the tiny bricks. The work allowed them to blend both their love of books and art with their care for each other.

Front of the book box decorated with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince illustrations at 83 Gough Ave, Kathleen Sandusky & Fritz Roth's house
Photo by Daphne Guima

What’s more, when I initially asked for an interview, Kathleen included Fritz because “the library is a joint effort.” She was talking about their specific project, of course; however, aren’t all the best libraries in the world joint efforts too? And often when efforts are shared by volunteers like them, so is gratification. Kelly Swartz, the steward behind the Dragon book box at 50 Playter Cres., is another glaring example of this.

A neighbour questioned her, apprehensive of homeless people… A cold-hearted claim to which Kelly wisely replied, “Well, if that happens, good for them to have a place to sit.”

As an immigrant mother of two children, the holistic sex coach and her family weren’t precisely welcomed in the Danforth community. “In my neighbourhood there’s a lot of elder, entitled individuals; there is no warmth. There are areas in Toronto where people go from house to house and support each other, but mine is not like that; not at all.” Kelly’s little library was also taken with suspicion. In spite of being one of the most endearing I’ve ever seen—pastel blue and bright yellow, with illustrations of a goofy dragon, a girl of colour reading, a unicorn, and rainbows—when she decided to install a wooden bench on the side, a passing neighbour questioned her, apprehensive of homeless people using the furniture. A cold-hearted claim to which Kelly wisely replied, “Well, if that happens, good for them to have a place to sit.”

Unwelcoming neighbourhoods fear welcoming neighbours. Nonetheless, a childhood spent in Latin America didn’t make Kelly inhospitable toward strangers nor misfits. On the contrary, growing up in Mexico, where access to literacy is low, gave her the awareness to see these little libraries as amazing opportunities to create a sense of community. “It is a matter of trust. If I don’t need these books, I give them to someone else, someone who will be able to read them.”

A blue book box illustrated with a dragon and a girl reading at 50 Playter Cres.
Photo by Daphne Guima

When I suggested that I could see a link between her job as an erotic expert and her little library, she appeared hesitant, yet soon asserted that maybe there was a connection indeed. I’d only noticed it from my very personal perspective, so it was comforting to hear Kelly grasp it in her own words: “Perhaps they are in a way related, since my role consists of helping people, of believing in the power of words, and in the power of books to help others. Maybe there is a common denominator.”

The common denominator, I think, is the ability to recognize sentimental and social value in ourselves and our surroundings. These stewards and their book boxes encourage us to be actively welcoming, generous, and brave. To live a life fearless of diversity, for that’s when meaningful contact happens: “A few months ago, a person approached me and told me that she rented a basement nearby, and that because she didn’t have anywhere to sit outside, my bench had become a stomping ground to her. She thanked me for that.”

It’s true that sometimes certain acts or things are apparently just small and cute. The Little Free Library project proves that their impact can be notwithstanding much more political and big than what it seemed at first glance.

What books do Kathleen, Fritz, and Kelly recommend?

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Circe by Madeline Miller
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
A Brief History of
Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
All books by Ruth L. Ozeki

How can you support their little libraries?

Donate books! They all need, especially, children’s literature in their stocks.

Leave a Reply