The Gift Exchange

Author: Erin Buckley ’08

A Little Free Library stands along my regular walking route. Like most Little Free Libraries, it appears to be an oversized mailbox, but it is really a portal to an untapped world. Untapped by me, that is. It is tapped by many others. Since I pass it just as I begin my exercise walk, I rarely stop to browse. Yet passing it leaves me with a pang of guilt, as if with each step I am becoming the type of person who bypasses life’s quaint delights.

I imagine that most avid free-librarians are children. Judging by the stock of 300-page paperbacks, I doubt children are the primary exchangers, but I think they must be the ones most interested in the foot traffic. I can picture myself as a 10-year-old extremely curious about a commerce of free items on my street. 

My family took a cross-country road trip when I was in middle school, and at some point we decided to offer chocolate bars to the toll collectors. It was thrilling to be a frontline observer to this social experiment. The setup was sort of Candid Camera, but instead of being duped the subjects received a random act of kindness. I recorded their responses in my notebook. I can still name the town in Indiana where someone refused.

I had taken it for granted that anyone offered a free chocolate bar would be happy to receive it. Free things assume oversized prominence in one’s youth. I had a kind of Halloween worldview, in which the world was full of strangers who were happy to hand you something of value if only you said the magic words. For years I kept gifts with no intrinsic value — a bracelet with a faulty clasp, a velvet pouch that remained empty — simply because they were given to me.

I might be wrong. Children might not be the ones most interested in free libraries; it might be adults. If that is so, it is adults with childlike hearts.

As I pass the library box now, however, I view the fingerprint-streaked glass door skeptically. The books are clearly ones that no one has wanted to preserve for their own indoor, weatherproof libraries. They are akin to my Goodwill donations. It is unclear by what moral calculation I deem donating my five-year old jeans a generous act. Even as I imagine someone delighted to find them on the rack, I know they’ll just as likely wind up in some dusty, storeroom purgatory. The spine-cracked paperbacks confront me now with my own perverted version of philanthropy.

Still, for me, bypassing free things creates ambivalence. I feel it during information fairs when I am bombarded by giveaways. I try to hold to some edict whereby I will not be enticed by goods if I am not interested in the organization. Meanwhile, the little pens in plastic bowls draw me in like magnets.

Of course, if one thing was going to upend my moral code, pens would be a frontrunner. Or ChapStick. The best free thing I got last year was a ChapStick from the Soybean Association at the state fair. ChapStick has steadily ascended in rank among my backpack necessities, coming in at No. 5, right after sunglasses. Of my six active ChapSticks, the peppermint one stings my lips and the one I keep in my bathroom is missing. So the Soybean stick is crucial.

But free libraries exist in a world apart from the fluorescent lights of information fairs. They are gateways like the knothole in To Kill a Mockingbird where Boo Radley leaves trinkets for Scout and Jem. Gifts of gum and carved soap delight the kids inordinately, so it is a dark day when they discover that the hole has been filled with cement; their game is over. I feel myself an accomplice to this cementing as I neglect these portals now. 

I’ve taken only one book from a Little Free Library: The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello. Its size attracted me — it’s an Image Pocket Classic. I browsed through it once and have not touched it since. I open it now to page 107, within the chapter “To Love One Another.” De Mello’s thought for the moment: “And here is a second quality of love — its gratuitousness. Like the tree, the rose, the lamp, it gives and asks for nothing in return.”

I might be wrong. Children might not be the ones most interested in free libraries; it might be adults. If that is so, it is adults with childlike hearts, who seem an endangered species even worthier of attention. But whoever flutters around these book birdhouses, I am not one of them. And though I have my reasons, something still tugs at me as I pass. Through the smudged window I sense the broken-spined books offering themselves, like all of life’s best things, for free.

Erin Buckley lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an occupational therapist. She tries to take a walk each day.