“Stolen” Little Free Libraries: The Silver Lining Behind Theft in Lexington, Kentucky

By Megan Hanson

Nicole, Phil and their son Alex.

Update! Two months after the Library’s disappearance, we learned that it was mistakenly taken by a local couple who thought the Library had been placed on the curb as trash. The Library was returned to the Breazeale family. Get the story here.

There aren’t many downsides when it comes to starting a Little Free Library book exchange. Maybe some bored teenagers steal the doorknob or leave a mean note in the Library one day, but those are pretty minor problems in the grand scheme of things. Usually, Little Libraries are a joyful surprise to unsuspecting community members and readers, and they quickly become treasured neighborhood assets.

Occasionally, though, someone “steals” a Little Free Library. It’s a baffling event for everyone involved. After all, why would anyone steal a cute box of books whose contents are free for everyone? It is easy to get disheartened and assume the worst, that no good deed goes unpunished…but we’ve noticed a trend around incidences of Library “theft.” After the initial shock, there is an outpouring of support from the local community. Previously-unknown neighbors reach out, new Little Libraries are built and friendships arise from tragedy.

A few weeks ago Nicole Breazeale of Lexington, Kentucky had a similar experience, and she shared her story with us:

A week ago was the first anniversary of my husband’s death. Phil died from brain cancer at 38. He was extraordinarily full of life—revered as a jokester, sports enthusiast, political critic, world traveler, and archaeologist. But mostly Phil was loved for his endless curiosity and passion, his gentle heart, and his steadfast commitment to family, friends, and community.

To memorialize my soul mate and little Alexander’s daddy, the two of us constructed a Little Free Library that we placed in front of our home on his angelversary. The tribute box was covered with the same bumper stickers that adorned Phil’s iconic blue Forester. It was filled with books that were important to Phil and that he would want to share with other people. My hope was that this Little Library would promote neighborliness, that it would encourage people to browse through his collection and find something of interest, and that it would serve as a topic of conversation for those who wandered by.

Much to my surprise, and heartbreak, the box disappeared in less than 24 hours, taken by unknown individuals for reasons only they understand. However, something extraordinary followed in the wake of its disappearance. My original Facebook post asking for help in locating the box was shared more than 4000 times. Many folks must have called the local media because news reporters showed up in droves the next day and covered the story widely. J&H offered a $500 reward for the box’s safe return, and I have since received two other offers to add to that reward.

No one is more disappointed than me that the box did not materialize this last week. I was certain that it had been taken accidentally–that someone had thought the box was cool and that its owners no longer wanted it. And I imagined that when they opened the box and saw its contents and heard all the media reports that they would return it. Unfortunately that did not happen.

Nicole’s Little Free Library

The box may be gone, but I have been humbled by the show of support from this community. Among the extraordinary things that have transpired: a stranger left a gift at my front door and we later discovered that I had been a babysitter for her son 22 years ago; I met four neighbors for the first time who invited me to visit with them and to join in a women’s group; I reconnected with high school friends of mine (and Phil’s); and many, many strangers from across the state offered to help replace the box, commenting on how touched they were by our love story.

Of course, the response was not all positive. Many people reacted by reaffirming their feelings of distrust and disappointment in our community: “If we don’t chain up our valuables, some scumbag will steal them.” I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to counter that narrative, because truth be told, if that is the outcome of this loss, I will be even more heart-broken. It is the opposite of what I was trying to accomplish with the Little Library memorial, the exact opposite of what Phil would have wanted.

Incredibly, however, there is a different community response that is gaining momentum. Like the initial show of support, it challenges that negative narrative and may even bring about something more beautiful than I had intended. Two days ago I was tagged in a Facebook post by someone I did not know. Jennifer Cooper & Matt Bradford posted the following message: “Help her honor her husband. Put library boxes all over Lexington! I’m making one for Bradford BBQ!” That same day I was cc’d on a group email sent by Rachel Kennedy, a former colleague of Phil’s, proposing that those who loved Phil “place a little library box in your yard or somewhere in your community.”

The Kentucky Heritage Council is placing an archaeology-inspired box outside of their office in Frankfort. FoodChain will create one with books that promote food literacy and the sustainable, local food movement. The Little Free Library nonprofit is providing a Lexington Library in honor of brain cancer warriors, which will be filled with books hand-selected by family members who have lost their loved ones to GBM. Even the Barren County Detention Center was inspired to create a Little Free Library in their lobby for kids who are growing up without a parent. And there are other individuals (and families) who are making boxes because it seems like a nice thing to do.

While I am sure that Phil’s spirit is laughing hysterically at all the fuss over a missing box (the contents of which are replaceable, and even meant to be distributed), his legacy has been a catalyst for drawing parts of our community together. If it makes the community a little more generous and a little less isolated, then that’s a great thing. And as people continue to step up, it draws on the best of them, the part of them that is kind and concerned for others— not isolated and fearful, not afraid of others. That is squarely in line with Phil’s values.

For me, having faced the loss of my best friend and life partner, everything seems different now. In the grand scheme of things, the loss of this box is not the end of the world. What started as a single, semi-private tribute to the man I loved has turned into something that touched a whole city. At this point my attention is focused on the good things that are coming out of it. I know that Alex and I have been blessed by a tremendous show of support from friends and family over the last year and a half, but I did not realize that there was a wider trust-worthiness to this place I call home. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for that.

Click here for more examples of how to deal with Little Free Library vandalism.

Click here to learn how to start your own Little Free Library.

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