After the Waldo Canyon fire roared through Mountain Shadows in June 2012, killing two and destroying 347 homes, Carolyn and Tim McMahon wanted to do something for their neighbors on Rossmere Street and the rest of the area who lost everything.
“We felt such grief for our neighborhood,” Carolyn said. “We wanted to do something to pull our block together a little bit.”
Then last spring Carolyn heard about the Little Free Library program that encourages community-building simply by giving away books from a water-tight box erected in the front yard.
“The concept is: take a book, leave a book,” Carolyn said. “For Mother’s Day, I asked my husband if we could do something for our neighborhood and put up a Little Free Library.”
Soon, their box was erected in a grove of trees with large stepping stones leading to it. The McMahons stocked it with books from their personal library — a mix of adult and children’s books.
“This was our contribution to community togetherness after the fire,” Tim said. “We wanted to give the community something to share.”
Their library — a simple wooden box with a shelf and glass door erected on a wooden post — opened May 31 and it has been a source of joy, and books, ever since.
“It’s fabulous,” said Carolyn, a retired elementary school librarian and kindergarten teacher. “The books have come and gone. Sometimes they never come back. And that’s OK.
“We absolutely love it.”
She loves looking out the window and seeing neighbors gathering at the box to chat.
She loves seeing which books are borrowed and the new books friends and strangers bring to replace them.
She especially loves when children and teenagers stop at the box.
“One day, I looked out and a group of teens was out there and one of them said: ‘Look! They have Hunger Games!’ ” she said. “I love it when I see people out there. And I love meeting people there.”
The book borrowing isn’t confined to neighbors. The McMahons have had strangers stop by and even knock on their door to ask about it.
Then there was the construction crew that rebuilt the house next door after the fire.
“Construction workers would go to the Little Free Library and get books,” Carolyn said with a laugh.
She is so devoted to the library that during the winter she installed a battery-operated candle on a timer so evening patrons could visit.
“It was getting dark at 4:30 every day and you couldn’t see inside the Little Free Library,” she said. “So I put in the candle. It came on at 4:30 and went off at 10:30. It was lovely to come home and see that little glow in the garden.”
The McMahons are part of a growing trend nationwide and in the Pikes Peak region.
According to the LittleFreeLibrary.org website, there are at least nine free libraries in the area from Chipita Park in Ute Pass to northern Colorado Springs to near downtown to the southside Meadows Park Community Center to the Broadmoor area.
Some are projects of a Girl Scout troop. Others are connected to a coffee shop or business. One was erected in memory of a woman who took books to Afghanistan and died in 2013.
Photos on the site show the Little Free Library boxes range in size and design, limited only by your imagination.
At the urging of reader Cheryl Solze, I visited one at 1034 E. Platte Ave. It is more larger and more colorful than the McMahons’ library. It has three shelves, white walls with faux windows on the sides and a glass door painted red with a black-and-white cat painted on one pane.
Inside I counted about 50 books, paperback and hard-cover, ranging from romance novels to history books to mysteries.
I stopped to talk to the owners, Jacqueline and Patrick Ayers. who described their own love of reading and desire to encourage others as motivation for building the library last May.
“It has been a wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” Jacqueline said in an email message. “They even came driving up in their cars from other areas of the city.”
Patrick said he’s been surprised how readily people contribute books.
“Sometimes they even leave a boxes of books on the porch for us,” he said, showing me how he built their library using plywood, an old basement window for the door, wood fence slats he cut up for roof shingles.
Like the McMahons, the Ayers enjoy watching as neighbors meet at the library and chat.
“People are making new friends,” Patrick said. “That’s good for the neighborhood. I’d like to see these in every neighborhood.”
As we stood on the sidewalk talking, a woman walked up with a cloth bag pulled two novels out and put them in the library.
“This is such a neat idea,” said the woman, Martha Schwartz. “I love this thing. I’ve been using it four or five months. It’s such a cool idea.”
Martha said she loves to read and uses the Pikes Peak Library District. But the Little Free Library is so convenient she finds herself dropping by regularly.
“This is so wonderful for people like me out walking,” she said as she looked for a new book to borrow.
I particularly like the whimsical, even magical quality of the different library boxes.
And the Ayers say there really is a little magic in the boxes.
They told me of a man who walked by their library box just before Christmas.
The man had a wife and an 8-month-old baby, no car and little money.
He told Ayers he wanted to give his wife a book from the library.
“When he took it home and gave it to her, they found stamps inside of the book,” Jacqueline said. “They took the stamps to a collector and received $200 for them.”
Patrick smiled broadly at the memory: “I told him: ‘It is Christmas, after all!’ ”