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Micca Watts-Gordon chuckled when asked if her 3-year-old son Eli could read yet.
“Well, he thinks he can,” she said.
The tyke’s love of reading is no doubt a reflection of his mother’s own love of books, a passion that inspired her to start her very own “Little Free Library” on Bridlewood Avenue in Shelbyville.
The Letcher County native, who is a second grade teacher in Jefferson County, said she got the idea for the project partly from a love of reading, but also because she wanted to do something as a tribute to her grandmother, Odell Watts, and her great-grandmother Lauren Hawkins, who had passed down their own passion for reading.
Watts-Gordon said that Hawkins liked to read so much she would keep things to read in her apron pocket, things that were just written on small scraps of paper, because books were hard to come by in those days in Eastern Kentucky.
“She had all these clippings, and she would fold them and unfold them and read them,” she said. “There weren’t any libraries, or even very many books for that matter, and most people didn’t even know how to read.”
Also, as a teacher, Watts-Gordon said she has seen children come into the school system as kindergartners who have not been exposed to books before and they are at a disadvantage, so she is hoping her little library can help children get the right start in that direction.
“Sometimes when they come in, it’s hard to catch them up to where they want to be,” she said. “So I thought it would be something neat to start here.”
In addition to promoting literacy, what she loves best about the Little Free Libraries is that they lend a unique, personal touch to the reading experience, and there is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community, she said.
“I love it when people stop by and pick up a book I’ve read, it’s pretty popular in my neighborhood,” she said.
What is a Little Free Library?
The “Library” consists of boxes that are mounted outside business, organizations – YMCAs are popular spots – and other places, but residences are uncommon locations for them. These boxes, made of recycled material, can contain a few hundred books and work on the honor system. The boxes themselves, which sport a waterproof door that can latch, are often colorful and some have even served other purposes previously, such as a telephone booth or a newspaper machine.
The design itself attracts people, Watts-Gordon said, adding that she even picked up a few new patrons during the 2014 Primary Election campaign season.
“There were a few politicians that came by and they wanted to come back and bring their kids,” she said.
Danny Eades, who won the District 7 Republican nomination for magistrate May 20, said when he saw Watts-Gordon’s Little Free Library, he was immediately taken with it.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful idea; I just knew my daughter Sydney [a student at Simpsonville Elementary School] would just love it,” he said. “You know, most kids are crazy about their electronic gadgets, with my daughter, it’s books.”
Eades said he has already been by once, and plans to visit again.
“I would really like to see more of them around here,” he said.
Sarah Lewis, a neighbor of Watts-Gordon’s, was the library’s first patron, and possibly, its biggest fan
“My gosh, it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen,” she said. “And the best thing is, I’ve really enjoyed the three books I’ve read so far And the thing is, they are books I probably would not never even noticed at the regular library.”
Made with love
The library in front of Watts-Gordon’s house sports a painting of her grandmother’s house in Letcher County, and is actually constructed of wood made from her old house, she said.
“My Aunt [Whitesburg artist Kae Fisher] painted the beautiful paintings on the sides and back,” she said.
“I made it,” her dad, Michael Watts of Letcher County said proudly, referring to the box itself.
“I used material from my mom’s house in Eastern Kentucky.”
Watts said he wanted to have it done for her by last Christmas, but that it took longer than he thought it would.
“I tell you what, a lot of love went into it,” he said.
The only thing was, he said, when he mounted it in the ground in front of his daughter’s house in April, he didn’t dig the hole deep enough, and the box blew over during the storm last week, ruining most of the 100 or so books inside.
“I hope Justin [her husband] can put it back,” he said.
No worries, his daughter said; she has already restocked it with as many as it had previously, which include a variety of children's and adult books.
“I had too many books, anyway,” she said with a giggle. “I guess you could say a I have a book obsession.”
The Little Free Libraries operate on a much more relaxed system than a regular library, Watts-Gordon said, and runs on the honor system.
“Anyone may contribute or take books; the more the merrier,” she said. “If you take a book or two from a library, you do not need to return that exact book at any point. However, in order to keep the Little Library full of good choices for the whole neighborhood, the next time you swing by the library, bring a few books to share.”
Watts-Gordon said when she started researching, she found there were no little libraries in Shelby County and only a very few in Kentucky.
Founded in 2009 by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks in Wisconsin, the program has an estimated 15,000 Little Free Libraries in 24 states and 8 countries – Shelbyville’s is the 22nd in Kentucky.
Lewis said she was really touched by what Watts-Gordon said when she asked her if she had to sign something to check out a book, and she said no.
“I asked her, well what if people don’t bring them back? And she said, ‘Well, you can’t really steal a free book.’”