ST. PETERSBURG — To celebrate International Literacy Day on Sept. 8, Kristine and Michael Dowhan, founders of St. Pete Shush, gifted three Little Free Libraries to Academy Prep Center in St. Petersburg.
They heave-hoed the former tbt* boxes that used to house the free weekly paper owned by the Tampa Bay Times out of the bed of a pickup truck and placed them in a field on the corner of 23rd Street and 22nd Avenue S, across the street from the nonprofit middle school.
They’re decorated in the school’s colors. The kelly green boxes are adorned with the school’s logo in gold and filled with books by and about people of color that range from elementary school to middle school reading levels.
The gift is the latest in an effort to promote literacy that the Dowhans started at the beginning of quarantine, when they filled a found hutch with books and placed it in front of their Snell Isle home.
They received so many book donations from neighbors, they sprang into action to bring them into the community. They gauged interest on social media to find locations for more little libraries and reached out to the Tampa Bay Times, which donated the boxes, which were being retired. The worldwide neighborhood book organization Little Free Libraries gave them 25 charters to have their locations listed on their website’s map.
The network of “librarians” who look after the little free libraries are known as St. Pete Shush (a shush is a group of librarians), which Kristine founded.
To date, there are now more than 100 librarians in the network. Not all of them use the newspaper boxes, but Kristine said they are happy to support everyone because they have the same mission to bring books to St. Petersburg.
The Dowhans established a partnership with 321 Books, which give them new books in exchange for donated old ones that the bookseller can recycle. Once a week, Kristine climbs into giant bins in the bookseller’s warehouse, digging around for books that promote diversity.
“Our partnership with 321 Books has been critical to our success,” she said. It is important to her, she said, that people get new books rather than tattered, old ones.
Now, they have placed 89 boxes in 75 locations. And there are 14 more leads for positioning in St. Petersburg, between 20th and Fifth avenues S and 22nd and 40th streets.
They recently installed boxes at John Hopkins Middle School, where Kate Little, one of the Shush’s librarians, is an actual librarian in the school’s media center.
Kristine also partnered with the Word! Collective, whose Word Book Boxes are placed in south St. Petersburg, and gave them charters so that those locations would be listed on the Little Free Libraries online map.
The connection to Academy Prep was made by Bonnie Hargett, Kristine’s fellow director on the Snell Isle Property Owner’s Association board. Kristine said that Hargett is involved with Academy Prep and “knew that they would love it.”
By all accounts, the school does love it. A new school library has been in the works since last year, generating excitement among the students.
“It’s really great to connect to the idea of the little libraries, too, to keep the action of literacy as strong as we can,” said Sarah McDonald, marketing and communications coordinator for Academy Prep. She said that literacy rates are low in portions of that community and that the school is focused on literacy.
“It’s so nice to have something like this that just adds that element to the community, that without any charge, they can take a book,” she said. “I’m really excited about it.”
Fellow “librarians” Susie Johnson, Brenda Ragano and Little were in attendance at the box installation to show support. Johnson said that her library is so popular she has never had to restock because so many neighbors refill it.
Despite the donations of books, Kristine said the project still needs monetary funds to keep going, for paint and supplies to clean up the boxes and for the books that she herself buys. Donations can be made through a GoFundMe account.
“We’re hoping that as we build up the libraries and build up the collection that people will start to say, I’ve enjoyed these books,” she said. “Let me share them with other people and that way more people will be reading, which is the whole point. It becomes part of the community.”