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Little Free Libraries putting books just down the street in Arizona

PHOENIX -- The structure outside Barbara Hinske's downtown home looks like a fancy birdhouse. But instead of being littered with bird seed it's brimming with books.

Dubbed Hinske Hall, it's one of a growing number of Little Free Libraries decorating dozens of front lawns, storefronts and parks around Arizona, connecting to an international movement that encourages neighborhoods to share books.

"My little library is so much more than these two shelves; it's a reading community," said Hinske, a writer.

More than 50 titles jam the shelves. Hinske said the most popular are "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and the children's picture book "My First Plane Ride." Audio books and magazines are also available to borrow.

Little Free Libraries can look like houses, animals or any other object that can hold and protect books against the elements. Hinske's is a mini-mansion with a granite exterior, marble front door and a little window with a dog looking out.

Anyone can visit Hinske's Little Free library, she said. The concept is simple: take a book, leave a book.

The first Little Free Library was built in 2009 in Wisconsin, according to littlefreelibrary.org. Since then, Little Free Libraries have graced front yards in Honduras, Uganda, Pakistan and elsewhere.

"I think it's the new frontier for reading," Hinske said.

Ann Boles, president of the Arizona Library Association, refers to them endearingly as "mini-me."

"Arizona has great libraries, but having little libraries in neighborhoods for easy access is going to guarantee that more people are reading," Boles said. "That makes me happy."

Outside Nancy Klatt's uptown Phoenix home, kids meet around the bench right next to her blue Little Free Library to read after school. During the spring, they sprawl on the grass and up against a tree and read into the evening. She brings them lemonade.

"I'll look out my window and they're reading ‘Angelina Ballerina' to one another and giggling," Klatt said.

The tale about a small dancing mouse going to the national dance finals has always been the neighborhood's favorite, Klatt added.

"Being outside makes reading fun for them," she said. "Sometimes I catch girls twirling on my lawn."

In the East Valley, Virginia Lewis designed and painted her Little Free Library to look like her house in Chandler. She visits with whoever she sees perusing the shelves and once had a visitor from Madison, Wis.

"Everyone can be so closed off now," Lewis said. "Neighbors just get in their cars and drive away."

Lewis said her little library has helped her get to know people she would have never met otherwise.

"It's so exciting to share my simple love for the smell of books and turning pages," Lewis said.

At Hinske Hall, established a year ago, children ride their bikes after school to explore new titles, runners break mid-stride to peruse and commuters at the bus stop take something along for the ride. Each time is an opportunity for Hinske to create a new friend in a fellow reader.

"Being a part of your community and reading good books at the same time, that's what it's all about," Hinske said.

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