The Little Library That Could

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:06

A specially-designed bench houses a community treasure of free books

Lower East Side First, the children in Two Bridges Neighborhood Council's afterschool program talked about the meaning of the library. Some drew it from memory, while others followed descriptions or outlined their own versions. On another day, they sanded it and wiped it clean.

Finally, in late April, architect Chat Travieso and members of Two Bridges' staff remounted the small library on the same iron fence near 82 Rutgers Slip where it hung last summer and fall, and the exchange of free books and magazines resumed.

One of ten libraries that PEN World Voices Festival and the Architectural League of New York partnered to create in 2013, the diminutive wooden bench and textual repository has proved popular with local residents.

"It makes it exciting for them," said Jessica Alvarado, whose six-year-old daughter, Bella, selected a copy of Beverly Cleary's "Beezus and Ramona" to take home last Friday afternoon. "The content constantly changes."

Minus Cleary's classic, that content included "Annie John," by Jamaica Kincaid; "War Comes to Willy Freeman," by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier; "Journey to Jo'burg," by Beverley Naidoo; and "The Great Gilly Hopkins," by Katherine Paterson, among other titles.

The structure isn't just any library, but a Little Free Library, so named after the Wisconsin nonprofit that encourages the proliferation of small, publicly accessible collections of books in communities worldwide.

In July 2012, Jakab Orsos, who directs the World Voices Festival, read a New York Times article about the first such library in New York City. He then contacted the Architectural League, which solicited applications to design ten libraries.

A festival volunteer found sponsors to donate funds, and the League allocated $1,000 for each library. The New Museum helped find downtown organizations and institutions to host and manage them.

"The bigger the city, the more profound the need for smaller communities," Orsos said over the phone. "Communities gathering around a notion of literature, a book, is always important."

A 59-year-old organization headquartered on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, Two Bridges helped develop local affordable housing in the 1970's, 80's and 90's.

According to its website, it "was founded to resolve racial conflicts" among diverse groups of residents living side by side.

About an hour after Bella Alvarado made her choice, Two Bridges' Executive Director Victor Papa, 69, recalled learning about his Jewish neighbors in the late 1940's and 50's via books.

"I understood who they were by reading the famous Jewish [Holocaust-era] survivor, who used to have coffee at the café-restaurant on East Broadway and Rutgers Street," Papa said, later naming the writer as Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Papa hopes that the library will give local children comparable opportunities to learn about different cultures, and said he would like to stock it with abridged versions of foundational Western and Chinese texts.

"I think [reading them] builds a foundation for understanding the world," he said.

Chat Travieso, the architect whom the Architectural League assigned to work with Two Bridges, said that the organization insisted that its library be recognizable to English, Chinese, and Spanish-speaking residents.

Travieso responded with an act of optical ingenuity. Face the library straight on and you'll read an English word; from the left, a Spanish one; and from the right, Chinese characters. They all spell "library" in thick, off-white lines.

The architect chose exterior-grade plywood to build the structure, which includes two seats on either side of a steel-handled receptacle. The children in the afterschool program helped trace the letters and characters, Travieso said, and paint the teal, orange and green sections between the slats.

A rubber strip helps seal out water from the receptacle. Though it rained intermittently on Friday, the piles of books within the library felt dry.

Sitting in Two Bridges' classroom, Kaitlynn Leung, 9, recalled reading a book about earthquakes while "sitting on one of the benches," and Merchindize Perry, 11, said that some of her family members, including an uncle, have used the library.

And both Perry and Cesar Polonia, 9, noted the cost-free part of the little library: no fees for lost cards, or late returns.