ENCINITAS — Sometimes, she hears the excitement of kids. In other instances, her ears pick up on the patter of footsteps or rummaging.
When Mary Jo Preti is inside her home, the trees and shrubs block her view of the custom-built library box that’s perched in front of her yard. Nonetheless, sounds from outside let her know the neighborhood appreciates the new amenity.
At no cost, residents can borrow books from Preti’s ever-evolving library at the corner of Village Run and Woodshadow Lane. In turn, frequent users are encouraged to donate books of their own to the collection, which runs the gamut from children’s titles to thick novels.
“What led to this is that we have 11 kids under the age of 9 in this cul-de-sac,” Preti said. “We were thinking about something unique we could do for all of them.”
Inspiration struck when Preti and her husband John Moring read about Little Free Library. The nonprofit promotes literacy throughout the world via the book boxes.
Later, Moring set out to build a Little Free Library as a Christmas present to Preti.
“I think it’s so great,” Preti said of the blue, wooden box that can hold up to 100 books (it’s three times the size of most mini-libraries due to the high number of kids in the area.)
And it’s safe to say the neighborhood, too, has welcomed the gift since it made its debut at the beginning of the year.
“Some kids walk by and get really excited and say, ‘oh, it’s the book house! It’s the book house!’” Preti said.
“I see a lot of little kids looking for books in there, and it’s awesome that it’s catching on,” said neighbor Dale Marie Perkins, whose home affords a better sightline of the box.
Preti, who passes out books with candy during Halloween, has always been a big believer in reading. But she emphasized that a book exchange also brings a sense of community.
“It’s a nice thing to do to make a neighborhood special,” Preti said, noting it will hopefully lead to residents getting to know each other better.
“We had one family up the street who just moved in,” she said. “It was like their vindication that they chose the right neighborhood.”
Preti added with a laugh: “Who knows, maybe we’ll make the real estate values go up.”
Starting the library required an initial investment of 30 books and then later an addition of children’s titles because the library is mostly used by kids.
But for the most part, the collection has been self-sustaining. And so far, no one seems to have taken more than their fair share of books.
“People are definitely bringing stuff back and contributing some titles,” Preti said, adding that one man happened upon a rare book, the name of which she couldn’t recall, that he’d been trying to find for years.
She assumes only immediate neighbors grab books from the box. However, because they don’t see most of the visitors, it’s possible they’re walking or even driving there.
“We’ve had people ask if they can take a photo and share it on Facebook,” Preti said. “So the word could be getting out.”
To that end, Preti is in the process of registering her box at littlefreelibrary.org. Once completed, her mini-library will be displayed on a website map showing where local branches are located.
The idea for Little Free Libraries was born when a Wisconsin man built a miniature schoolhouse in 2009 as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher who loved reading. He filled it with books and placed it on a post in his yard, and friends and neighbors loved it.
Not long after, a community organizer caught wind of the concept and teamed up to spread the word.
Now, there are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Little Free Libraries across the world. For those interested in creating their own, the website contains a how-to guide.
In coastal North County, the map shows there are three mini-libraries in Carlsbad and one in Oceanside. Yet Preti and her family can lay claim to being the first in Encinitas.
“Hopefully the network expands even more,” Preti said.