If you've been on foot in downtown St. Petersburg or Safety Harbor in the last few months, you might have noticed a whimsical, brightly colored box filled with books — with a sign encouraging you to take one for free.
Those boxes are the first of many, Mitzi Gordon hopes, in the Open Book Exchange. Gordon says she likes projects "at the intersection of books and art," and the Tampa writer, artist, curator and consultant created just such an intersection in 2011, when she founded Bluebird Books. The converted bus — part book shop, part art house — has shown up at events around Tampa Bay.
In 2012 she began a more stationary project: the Open Book Exchange. Gordon says she got the idea from the Little Free Library of Wisconsin, an organization that creates sturdy birdhouse-style boxes that are set up in public places and filled with donated books. The idea is that people can take a book to read for free and, perhaps, donate a book to replace it. "Their original goal was to have more libraries than Carnegie," Gordon says. Now there are thousands around the world.
"When I checked in mid 2012, there were only three in Florida," Gordon says, and she thought the boxes might get a good reception in the Tampa Bay area. "It's a community-building project. It's about the people and interaction as much as the books and reading."
She came up with a prototype and entered a grant competition sponsored by Creative Loafing. "I didn't win, but I received just so much warm response and support" that she built a couple of the boxes on her own. A friend, Tampa architect and artist Mishou Sanchez, developed a template for the boxes, and Gordon aimed for using reclaimed and recycled materials as much as possible.
One of the first two book boxes stands in front of Studio@620, at 620 First Ave. S in downtown St. Petersburg. Another perches at the Whimzey House, an artists' residence and event space at 1206 Third St. N in Safety Harbor. Gordon, who monitors the boxes, says both are getting plenty of use. "People donate, and the books go right out. Sometimes they're half or a quarter full." Other times, she says, they're "stuffed to the gills" after a big donation. Always, there's an element of surprise and discovery.
Originally, Gordon hoped to have a half a dozen of the boxes, "three in St. Pete, three in Tampa." But now, given the response, she says, "Why put a number on it?"
She is now "midway through construction on boxes three and four," and in discussions with several entities in Tampa about where those will be placed. In keeping with the idea of books intersecting with art, Gordon is working with St. Petersburg artist Hunter Payne on design.
Expanding the number of boxes is the reason for Love Lit, a Valentine-themed fundraiser for the Open Book Exchange that will take place tonight at Tempus Projects, a Seminole Heights art gallery. Gordon received a lot of donated books last year, including a number of handsome, large-format art books. "You can't put them in a book box because they're too big," so the centerpiece of Love Lit will be a silent auction of the books, which will be artfully displayed.
"It's another way to treat the book as an object, to put them on a pedestal," she says. "Love, lust and eye-candy are our primary themes." Some of the books are racy, others "on the sweeter side."
The event will include book-themed decor — paper-heart garlands made from old books — and a paper craft station where people can make their own Valentines. It will also feature "Captive Poet" David Durney, working at a vintage typewriter. "You can give him a donation and a two-word prompt, and he'll write a poem for you on the spot."
Gordon hopes Love Lit will raise funds to help the Open Book Exchange grow into other neighborhoods around the bay, bringing book lovers together. The ways that people read are changing, she says, and the book boxes are "a way to hang on to all these tangible treasures" and share them at the same time.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.