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Ahern: ‘Little library’ springs from big idea

Jeff Tangel (from left) Chicago’s Beverly community Canaan Baptist Food Ministry volunteers Catherine Watkins Arenge Dixstnext Little Free Library box

Jeff Tangel (from left), of Chicago’s Beverly community, and Canaan Baptist Food Ministry volunteers Catherine Watkins and Arenge Dixon stand next to the Little Free Library box that Tangel built to provide free books to anyone who passes by. | Supplied Photo

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:15AM



It’s hard not to compare Jeff Tangel, of Chicago’s Beverly community, to Santa Claus — both men have a desire to give things away.

The difference between the two (other than the fact that Tangel is fairly thin) is that instead of toys, Tangel has a passion for giving away books.

Because Tangel is so intent on sharing books, he built a small library box that he placed in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

The box, located at Canaan Food Ministry, across the street from Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, looks like an oversized bird house that houses about 20 books, each available for anyone who happens to pass by.

“I haven’t built anything like this, really, ever,” Tangel said. “I just read about this in a magazine and heard little libraries were going up all over the country, so I built this.

“It’s like a confetti cannon — you load it with books, and they just blast out into the neighborhood. People love it. The first day it was up was the food distribution day before Thanksgiving; more than 300 people in line. We filled that box six or seven times in just a couple of hours, and it’s been reloaded more than a dozen times since.”

The site Tangel chose for his small library is one he knows well as a volunteer for the Chicago Food Depository. In his work as a driver for the organization, Tangel travels throughout Chicago, picking up food and bringing it to the church, where it is then packaged up and distributed to those in need.

Arenge Dixon, a retired CPS teacher, and now a volunteer for church’s food ministry, said the little library is “awesome.”

“Once the library got up, it was something else,” Dixon said. “Every day people wipe out the books. Kids hit it first on their way home from school, but adults take them, too. It’s just awesome.”

The Little Free Library is actually a grassroots effort to share books throughout the world and is the brainchild of Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, who run the Little Free Library from Hudson, Wis.

Brooks, an outreach program manager in continuing studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the idea started when Bol had a garage sale and built a small library as a memorial to his mother, a teacher who passed away.

Brooks said Bol designed his library like a one-room schoolhouse and was very surprised by the positive reaction he received about his book giveaway. Brooks said the two discussed this reaction and from that point, the idea for the Free Little Library was born.

Brooks said that in nearly two years, book sharing boxes are now in all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada and in 36 countries.

“There are five to six thousand libraries that we know of,” Brooks said. “There’s someone in Topeka, Kanas that built 20 of them; someone in Fayetteville, Arkansas built 17; and someone in New Orleans built 12 out of Hurricane Katrina debris.

“It is extremely gratifying to see this happen and we love it. Sometimes we wish this would all come about a little slower, but we can keep it going if we can get support for our infrastructure. This idea is so good that we need to keep it going.”

Mike Dunne, of Chicago’s Beverly community, helped Tangel with the library by doing the artwork that decorated it.

“The credit for this goes primarily to Jeff,” Dunne said. “It was his idea, and at this stage of my life, I was looking for something worthwhile to do.

“I felt I helped a little. I’m not looking for a pat on the back, but it is constructive and good to do something for the world now and then.

“It may be that Jeff and I will do another and I will be glad to help again.”

Tangel is enthusiastic about the project and, in his Santa-like way, envisions many more libraries throughout Chicago.

“Most of us don’t make anything any more,” Tangel said. “Mike’s artwork added magic to a box that drew people to it to open the door and take a look. Without Mike’s artwork, the little library would just be a boring box.

“This was so rewarding. This is something you make with tools, wood and imagination — all good for the doer and whoever gets the library. There are five to 600 food pantries in the Chicago area — that’s five to 600 places that need this small library. There is a huge demand for books in these communities.”

Dixon complimented Tangel’s efforts and said she was eager to provide more books as well as food and clothes to the people that come to her church’s food pantry.

“I wish everyone would put one of these libraries up at every pantry in the city,” Dixon said. “We run out of food, and we try really hard not to turn anyone down. With the holidays, we run short. We could use books and we could use food, too, and we definitely need coats.”

Books, clothes or food can be dropped off at Canaan Baptist Church, 6659 S. Harvard St., Chicago.

For more information about the Little Free Libraries, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.



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