DUNEDIN — Tom and Gay Gagnon had pedaled from Tarpon Springs to the old train depot in downtown Dunedin when they spotted a quaint miniature house atop a wooden pole, right off the Pinellas Trail near the depot.
The couple got off their bikes to take a closer look.
"When we visited Thailand, we saw little spirit houses where people placed oranges and other gifts for the Buddha," Gay Gagnon said. "This little house reminded me of that spirit house."
Larger than a birdhouse and smaller than a dollhouse, this small white house also held gifts — several dozen books of all types, free to anyone walking or riding by. In shiny red letters on one wall of the little house, the words "Take a Book" and "Return a Book" urged passers-by to peek in.
"This is very Dunedin," said Dunedin library director Phyllis Gorshe, who initiated the free book exchange throughout the city. "It promotes both literacy and art."
The idea of the little boxes is to donate a book when you have one or take a book when you want one. The concept began in Wisconsin in 2011 when one man, Todd Bol, chose to honor his late mother, a book lover and teacher, with the first little free library box. In two years, thousands of little book boxes have sprung up across the country and in foreign nations as well. Most are now part of what has become the Little Free Library organization.
Gorshe spotted her first library box while visiting her husband's family in Minnesota. Her reaction was immediate, she said: Why not put up those little boxes in Dunedin?
In April 2013, the first decorative book box, sponsored by the Dunedin Friends of the Library, was put in place downtown.
"To get it started, we put donated books into the box," Gorshe said, "but in about two weeks people started donating themselves."
To date, there are eight of the little boxes throughout Dunedin, all in attractive, well-lit areas. In addition to the one near the old train depot, others have been placed at Hammock Park, Honeymoon Island State Park, the Martin Luther King Center, Weaver Park, the Dunedin Boat Club/Marina and the Arboretum. Another stands at the corner of Louden Avenue and Wood Street.
"We're also hoping to put one in on the campus of the Dunedin Fine Art Center," Gorshe said.
All of the book boxes have sponsors. Among the sponsors are public and private organizations as well as individual donors. Most of the boxes are ordered from a library vendor who works with the national Little Free Library organization, but several were made from scratch by local residents.
A member of the Friends of the Island Parks designed the one on Honeymoon Island to look like an old honeymoon cottage. That box is made of logs with a small wood-framed opening for the books.
A private donor created a colorful orange box for Hammock Park, decorated with playful animals and holding lots of children's books.
Books for all ages usually appear in most of the boxes, but the box at Weaver Park, which houses a children's playground and abuts the bike trail, is built lower to the ground so children can reach it. It contains a greater number of children's books.
"They go the quickest," Gorshe said of children's literature.
So far the Little Free Library exchange in Dunedin has gone well. Since the books are free, theft hasn't been an issue, and most people have been generous about donating. Library staff members check the boxes periodically and try to put thematic books in as holidays roll around. If a book has been in a box too long, staff members remove it and replace it with another.
In spite of a large, interconnected public library system and the ease with which someone can download a book onto a Kindle or other tablet, the little free boxes have a special allure.
"People walk by, see it and often take a picture," Gorshe said. "They also put in books they'd like to share with others."
Technology, she said, may work in favor of the tiny libraries.
"There is so much technology," she said, "that it is special for someone to reach into the box and pick out a real paper book — for free."
Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.