If you’ve ever walked through the neighborhoods of Takoma Park, Maryland, you’ve most likely come across a Little Free Library, a small book case on a post where neighbors can borrow, share, or recycle old books and magazines.
After getting their local start on a few residential streets, these small but impactful community amenities quickly expanded to multiple locations across all six wards, and thousands of Takoma Park residents have either borrowed from or donated to a Little Free Library.
As these micro-libraries gained in popularity, they naturally attracted the attention of investors who believed the services offered by Little Free Library could be expanded and improved. Local entrepreneur Rachel Grassley, for example, saw an opening for her Little Free Library to offer not just books, but a more complete reading experience. “I wanted to create not just a place to trade books, but an environment to stick around and read them,” said Grassley. “So I created the first ‘Little Free Latte’ machine to sit alongside the library box.”
The Little Free Latte machine was such a huge success in Grassley’s front yard that other Little Free Libraries around the city felt pressure to keep up with the competition. The Little Free Latte is now available almost anywhere a Little Free Library is located in the city. But it didn’t stop there.
Greg Jackson, a venture capitalist on Carroll Avenue, added a complete outdoor seating area for his Little Free Library. “The neighbors were throwing out their old couch, and it just hit me–patrons of my Little Free Library would love a comfortable place to sit while enjoying their books and their lattes,” stated Jackson. “So I grabbed that couch and added a few more to create plenty of seating opportunities. My customer base immediately jumped by 50%.”
As competition grew between neighborhood Little Free Libraries, business tactics have become increasingly cutthroat. Jean Curtis, whose library on Garland Avenue offers a children’s storytelling stage, recently bought the operating rights to four other libraries in Ward 2 with the intention of closing them down. “Several of the other Ward 2 libraries had wifi and charging stations. I can take the equipment from those libraries and expand the services offered at my Garland Avenue location while also eliminating my nearest competitors. It’s a win-win.”
Similar consolidations have taken place in Wards 4 and 6, where the sole remaining libraries have capitalized on their monopolies by instituting rental charges for each book, as well as a slate of other small fees. “People have complained about my Little Free Library no longer being free, but apparently they don’t care strongly enough to just start using the Takoma Park Library instead, “ said Joe Stanley, the owner of Ward 6’s Little Free Library®. “I’ve made such a convenient, useful product that people can’t give it up. It’s like they’re addicted.”
Beyond the institution of charges for formerly free services, there has been some grumbling throughout the city about Little Free Library abuses. The Takoma Junction Little Free Library is engaged in litigation over allegations that its “Hey Library” digital assistant spies on the conversations of neighbors while they enjoy their lattes, and the Historic District Little Free Library is facing backlash after its gelato delivery pilot brought significant financial hardships to both local gelato stores.
Nevertheless, innovations in the Little Free Library concept are expected to continue as new investors continue entering the market. Paperwork was recently filed with the city for the establishment of the first Little Free Library Fulfillment Center in some industrial space off of New Hampshire Avenue. Construction on that center is expected to be complete in early 2020 and promises to kick off a new round of major changes in the Little Free Library economy.