Amy Walton and James Garrett live in a modest home in Oak Lawn. You can hear their cat’s meow if you listen carefully and planes roar past even if you don’t. Their furniture is artsy-chic but comfortable, and the door is flanked by a large bookshelf full of trinkets and novels. They’re middle aged and both have corporate jobs. James is an artist in his free time, and his eyes light up when he mentions it. They have active social lives: friends, parties, book club. They seem happy, and I ask how they met.
The answer? Online. But what really bonded them together, however, were libraries—particularly those of the little and free variety. This library-related meet cute is probably what intrigued Margret Aldrich, who featured the couple in her recently released book, The Little Free Libraries Book.
“I have this project where I would do a small art piece and then put it in the street for someone to find,” James said. “I was telling Amy about it on our first date, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s like this thing called Little Free Library.’ A big part of our first date was talking about Little Free Libraries. Later, I looked on Google Maps and saw a bunch of them in the Metroplex, so I was like, ‘I’m going to drive around and take a look at all of these!’ For our second date we puttered around, all the way to McKinney, and she had a little picnic lunch so we picnicked and looked at the libraries.”
The Little Free Library is a humble thing. At its core, the idea is to create a waterproof box, fill it with books and let your neighbors bring and take whatever they please. When the couple settled down, it became obvious that they should have one of their own. James built it out of wood with removable panels on which he could create seasonal displays of his art, and the couple filled it with books: banned books, science books, Dune (which James insists someone would love if they’d just take it home), and kids’ books—lots and lots of kids’ books.
“One of our objectives when we built the library was to make sure that the content was relevant to the neighborhood, and we live in a really diverse neighborhood,” Amy said. “A lot of immigrant and Spanish-speaking families live around here. We’ve tried to keep Spanish language books around for kids and adults as much as we can.”
In fact, in her campaign to keep the Little Free Library full of enough Spanish books, Amy approached Stephen Colbert last year to see if he would donate a signed book for her to auction off for seed money.
“I am a superfan of Stephen Colbert,” she said. “I reached out and asked him if he’d consider talking about the libraries of the show, because the character on the Colbert Report hates reading and feels everything from his gut, hates anything that’s socialized… I thought, ‘this is perfect! This character would love to rail against people sharing free books!’ I told him if he donated a signed book, we would love to auction it off because we’re trying to make sure we have a lot of kids’ books and Spanish-language kids’ books. He responded with a signed copy of his book I Am a Pole (And So Can You!), so we put it up for auction last year during the last ten days of his show.”
The book sold for $149.50 to a woman in Oak Cliff, and the couple used that money to keep their shelves stocked. They keep books in their garage for people who might want special books, recommendations or have requests. They see it as a way to bond with their neighborhood.
The pair isn’t satisfied with just having their own library, however. They have a friend named Margarita Birnbaum, whom they refer to as “the godmother of our Spanish language content.” Margarita advises them on which Spanish books to stock, so they’re building her a library as a gift, which will go in an underserved neighborhood. It’s called Libros y Sueños, Books and Dreams.
“I hope more people in Dallas get on board,” James said. “I hope there are more being put in areas that need books, where it’s a little farther to get to a public library.”
However, this might be a little more difficult than it used to be. The city of Dallas has seemingly started to crack down on its ordinances—Stacy Holmes was notified last month that one of her Lake Highland neighbors complained about her Little Free Library, and because her library violated a city ordinance, it will have to be either moved to a new location or removed altogether.
“Our heart goes out to her,” Amy said. “We hope something can be resolved with her neighbors and the city. The purpose is to build community, and that’s beneficial to the city. We’re just hoping people in our neighborhood see it as a welcome service.”
Not that Amy and James haven’t had their own challenges with their library. According to Amy, they have had two instances where kids kicked it in. It was an inconvenience, they said, but their library was “built like a tank” and they grumbled a little, removed the books so they wouldn’t get ruined, waited a little while and put it back together.
What’s interesting, however, is what happened in the two weeks when the library was out of commission. Amy came out of her house one day to find a pile of change—pennies.
“Our best interpretation was that a little kiddo thought if they put some money in there, we would keep doing it,” she said. “Maybe that kid will give something to someone else and share that joy of reading, and we will be part of that legacy. The idea of sharing is pretty cool.”