SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — A postman making his rounds in the neighborhood wondered if the blue box perched on a thick post was some newfangled mailbox.
But inside this box there are letters of a different kind — those that form words printed on pages which are bound together and turned by hand, one page at a time, by readers longing for stories and histories and facts.
They are old-style books, not e-readers or some other new technology.
On Sunday neighbors came with bags and armfuls of books, in hard cover and paperback, to donate to the “little free library” that stands as a literary sentinel in front of a Seminole Heights bungalow at 1224 E. Frierson Avenue.
A cabinet door opens to reveal the box’s contents — a stash of book titles that can be borrowed free of charge. The idea is that borrowers take a book and leave one behind for another reader.
“I thought this was an ingenious idea,” said Tim Heberlein, who owns the bungalow with the blue box out front. “I love that it’s like a community bookshelf.”
Journalist, artist and curator Mitzi Gordon is the woman behind the Open Book Exchange project. She owns Bluebird Books, a traveling book shop and art house inside a converted mini-bus, dubbed the Bluebird Bus.
She is on a mission to spread literacy and art but also to save printed books from succumbing to modern advances as more people buy Kindles, Nooks and tablets of all kinds.
“It’s related to literacy,” said Gordon of the book exchange. “But also as a tangible thing, as an art thing, a treasure of art and literature, and something I want to maintain. Books never give out of batteries. It won’t break if you drop it. It is something — pardon the pun — to hold onto.”
The little library at the home of Heberlein and Caitlin Cook is the fourth one to open since Gordon founded the exchange.
Two are in Pinellas County, at [email protected] in St. Petersburg and at the art studio and residence known as the Whimzy House, or the Bowling Ball House, in Safety Harbor. A third is outside Community Stepping Stones, a nonprofit youth art center in Sulphur Springs, north of Seminole Heights.
Lykes Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa is a possible next location for a book box, but Gordon said she first must meet a city requirement for liability insurance.
She looks for sites that are visible and well-traveled. And she is excited when people eagerly embrace the idea.
“I don’t want to own them all,” Gordon said. In the future she would like to hold workshops to explain the project and show how the book boxes are assembled. “Here’s the template so they can grow exponentially. We can help people learn how to do that.”
Neighbors stopped by Sunday to share books and an evening cookout.
Alex Demolina came with a load of children’s books, read and re-read by her 3-year-old daughter, Kiersta Archer. “I think it’s great,” Demolina said. “It brings a sense of community to the area. You don’t need transportation. You can walk up. We filter out (Kiersta’s) books a lot.”
And now they have a neighborhood place to pass them on to the next child.
Kiersta’s contributions included books from the children’s series “I Spy” and “Dinoville.” Other selections shared by people who deposited their books included Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” mystery writer Sue Grafton’s “U is for Undertow,” and Peter Matthiessen’s “Lost Man’s River.”
Gordon found her inspiration at “Little Free Library,” a website for a nonprofit Wisconsin organization. It began in 2009 after Todd Bol built a model of a one-room schoolhouse and filled it with books to loan out in honor of his mother, who had been a school teacher and avid reader.
More mini-libraries popped up in Wisconsin, and eventually they spread to other states. The group now keeps a registry of “little free libraries” worldwide including Gordon’s projects.
The website says as many as 15,000 libraries will be loaning books by the end of the year.
The book box on Frierson Avenue is planted two feet into the ground, secured by concrete, and is rainproof.
A cup of chalk sits inside, inviting spontaneous messages. Most writers say “Thank you” or “I love this,” Gordon said.
The cabinet door is the starting point for the mostly recycled materials for book boxes. “We get that (the cabinet door) first and build a box around it,” said Gordon.
“We just want it to be simple, recyclable and have a Florida look to it,” said architect and artist Mishou Sanchez. “It was really important to use recyclable materials. It’s about helping the environment.”
More books were brought than the 15 titles that could fit in the box. Gordon kept some books for her Bluebird Bus travels; Heberlein kept some on hand for the neighborhood’s little library.
“We try to have a little something for everyone,” Gordon said.
Heberlein serves as “curator,” monitoring the collection in order to add or swap books to keep a good mix of choices. “We want people to come talk over it,” Heberlein said. “It’s a very interpersonal experience.”
On Oct. 12 the Bluebird Bus will visit the St. Pete Indie Market; on Oct. 13 it will be at the Seminole Heights Sunday Morning Market. For information visit www.thebluebirdbus.com.