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The Big Little Library, Liverpool

by John Maguire
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A few years ago, ten million hardbacks celebrated a book depository in Liverpool. A place in a local shopping centre designated solely for the community to leave books they no longer needed and to pick up another for free. It seems this project suffered from the kind of book accumulation that has seen the top of my fridge become home to several cookbooks and smoothie recipes, or my bedroom – once the place from where I banished any excessive objects: a room solely dedicated to sleep – now playing host to an endless to-read pile on the bedside table. Likewise, the inventory of books at the Big Little Library has grown so much so that it has taken over an entire unit in Belle Vale shopping centre in Liverpool.

Over 14,000 people have popped in to take a book, borrow a book or give a book. I volunteer there for several hours a week and have seen first-hand the importance of this venue. It has become a vital, buzzing, community hub. In this area of Liverpool – as in a lot of places – pubs have shut, cafés are now slick affairs, community centres have closed and there is more and more of a focus on online communities. Yet there is something far more rewarding with face-to-face interaction. In the Big Little Library we have special events, like the recent Roald Dahl Day, with exciting activities. Children could create their own dream jars and design a wrapper for a Wonka bar, complete with a golden ticket.

A ‘live’ story time followed and I enjoyed reading aloud the deliciously wicked Revolting Rhymes.

Little Red Riding Hood said,
‘But Grandma, what a lovely great big
furry coat you have on.’

‘That’s wrong!’ cried Wolf.
‘Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I’m going to eat you anyway.’

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head,
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

There is a weekly knitting group (‘Knit and Natter’) on a Wednesday afternoon. The members created a majestic net of knitted poppies to mark Remembrance Day in November and the plan is to add to the piece every year. There are initiatives to encourage people to read out of their comfort zone by taking one of our lucky dip books. A randomly wrapped book with just three words to describe its content. I call it a literary lottery; you may possibly be introduced to a new author that you find amazing or one that fails to deliver, for me it was Barbara Cartland.

There is simply an abundance of books. The Big Little Library reminds me of a river as its stock is forever flowing, with books being donated and books being taken.  One lady came in on one shift with a donation of over 452 volumes. That was a busy few hours sorting through all the literary gold. I have learnt a lot about people’s varied reading habits. It is impressive how many Mills & Boons a body can go through. I have also identified how prolific some authors are and have been. Catherine Cookson must have been chained to her desk! In an era where even the most ludicrous is possible, (I don’t really feel the need to mention the current political spectrum both at home and internationally, that is simply both scary and surreal) the world can be fortified by reading. Lyndon Baines Johnson said it correctly,

A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.

It is easy to be cynical and to think that the majority have a shattered moral compass, but one elderly chap has restored my faith in humanity. This weekly regular first came in months ago and when the concept of the Big Little Library was explained to him, he could not, like most, believe that you could take the books and as many as you like for ‘free’. He promptly loaded up his shopping trolley with 30 tomes, promising to bring some back from home. The next day he returned with 30 books, true to his word, before taking out a crumpled piece of paper with a scribbled list. When questioned, he explained that most of the neighbours on his street were housebound, he had a list of authors favoured and he was going to take any books to them. He was a one-man mobile library.

I emphasised to him that this was a most generous and kind gesture, to which he replied,

I get a cup of tea and a biscuit, like, if I am lucky.

And the thought of this man assisting with no return necessary, just to be a good neighbour, puts a smile on my face. Perhaps you could take this chap’s example and visit house-bound neighbours or people in your area? Or set up your own little library somewhere in your community?

My dream is to own a vintage red English telephone box and fill it with free literature. One day, one day…

Big Little Library Christmas tree made of booksSo if you are in the area of Belle Vale in Liverpool, pop in to the Big Little Library. It is a wonderful place. We’ve even put up our Yule tree; just don’t ask for the book second layer from the bottom. Come back and get it in January!

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