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A St. Petersburg couple is making dozens of little free libraries for the community

Stuck at home due to the coronavirus, the Dowhans have been repurposing old tbt* newspaper boxes as lending libraries to spread throughout Pinellas County.

ST. PETERSBURG — The pandemic created a paradox for book lovers when it hit Florida. There was more spare time than ever for reading, yet some public libraries had shuttered indefinitely.

So when Kristine Dowhan, 29, saw a china hutch on the side of the road at the beginning of lockdown, she was inspired to fill it with books for the community.

She and her husband, Michael, 45, set it up at the end of their Snell Isle driveway in May, next to a sidewalk chalk message inviting passersby to take or leave a book.

The book hutch was so popular that a neighbor left a blank book inside for visitors to sign as a guest book.

“There is so much beautiful literature out there, yet, the only thing that is lacking are some stories of our own. It’s a strange time to be living in, this I know ... So, here’s to filling blank pages with a little bit of you, to meeting new people, and remembering to stop and reflect awhile,” wrote the person under the initials J.S. “Just remember to pass it on.”

That’s when the Dowhans realized they needed to make a permanent lending library.

A free lending library sits at the end of Kristine and Michael Dowhan’s driveway in Snell Isle in St. Petersburg. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

They bought a $700, 1940s-era oak phone booth from a New Jersey Craigslist seller and spent a month transforming it into a free library. But soon after it was installed in front of the house, the couple realized they needed more room to fit all of the books their neighbors were donating.

Kristine reached out to the Tampa Bay Times asking for old newspaper boxes. The Times had upgraded tbt* — the free weekly paper owned by the Times — boxes and donated the last of the old models to their cause. Then Little Free Library, a worldwide network of neighborhood book exchanges, donated 25 charters costing $40 each to help the Dowhans get the libraries listed on their online map for free.

Kristine Dowhan, 29, applies a coat of spray paint to an old tbt* newspaper box. She and her husband, Michael, are converting the racks to free lending libraries. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

Kristine posted in the Buy Nothing St. Petersburg Facebook group to gauge interest. She asked potential librarians to post a photo of where they’d like to place their community library along with the color they’d like. Then she and Michael started to transform the boxes.

The Dowhans spent weekday afternoons lining up the boxes in the driveway, scraping off old logos and stickers before cleaning, sanding, painting. They use supplies from existing home renovation projects and typically need to buy a can of spray paint for each box. They venture out on the weekends to deliver boxes to community librarians, who each decide how to customize their box.

Michael Dowhan, 45, removes stickers from an old tbt* newspaper box as his wife Kristine waits for a coat of paint to dry. The two are taking the news stands and repurposing them for free lending libraries. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

One librarian, Vanessa LeVesque, used her painting skills to adorn her box with images from 29 book covers, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Fabio on Gentle Rogue.

“I’m looking forward to maybe meeting some neighbors I’ve never gotten to talk with before. I’m looking forward to seeing what books are taken and what books are put in,” LeVesque said. “I think I’m just looking forward to the togetherness of the project, especially right now with everyone feeling so isolated from each other.”

Vanessa LeVesque decorated her library with paintings of characters from books including "Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type," "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and "Green Eggs and Ham." [ Courtesy of Vanessa LeVesque ]

Another librarian, John Hopkins Middle School reading teacher Kate Little, uses her Cricut Vinyl machine to make stickers for fellow librarians. Her purple box bears a Garrison Keillor quote: “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

“This has been my way of giving back to our community,” Little said.

Kate Little, a John Hopkins Middle School reading teacher, installed her free lending library outside of her Kenwood home in St. Petersburg and decorated it with homemade vinyl stickers. [ Courtesy of Kate Little ]

Including their phone booth, the Dowhans have created 16 libraries so far and have 12 more to complete. Each will be registered on the Little Free Library website. They set up a Facebook group for the local community librarians to stay connected called St. Pete Shush. (A group of librarians is called a shush.)

“What it really comes down to is exactly being able to sit on my front porch and watch my neighbors come to my house to enjoy our books and have it start conversations on what really brings our tiny little local community together,” Michael Dowhan said.