This is an article I wrote for the Spring 2020 issue of On the Danforth magazine (originally published March 2020).

Illustration by Reilly Ballantyne

Community is all about fellowship with others, those who have similar interests, passions, hobbies, and anything else that unites individuals. It’s a shared identity that encourages a sense of belonging, and takes away the feeling of being isolated and alone—something we seem to be struggling with more as the ways in which we connect with others continue to change.

The Danforth has always had a strong community, one that has become diverse in its background and population. With the bustling cultural energy in the neighbourhood, local shops, and public events, it’s easy to find a community you can relate to. For those who aren’t as extroverted or comfortable in large group settings, finding a sense of community can be difficult, but not impossible. There’s a community around the Danforth that may not even recognize itself as one, due to its shared passion for a solitary activity—it’s a community of readers who connect through neighbourhood book exchanges.

Books are kept safe in small birdhouse-like book-houses, protected from the weather, yet on full display through a little window for passersby to see. There are many who will keep walking, eyes averted or locked onto their electronic devices. There are some who will allow their eyes to wander, giving the little book-house a curious glance as they continue on their way. And then there are those who will stop, open the door, and explore what’s inside.

Book exchanges are popping up around the Danforth faster than chain coffee shops, and they have attracted a community of book lovers, extroverts and introverts alike. There is a sense of community in this, even though you are sharing stories with others who you may not know and may never meet.

One type of book exchange is the Little Free Library: a non-profit organization that started in 2009, after Todd H. Bol built the first book exchange and set it up outside his home in Hudson, Wisconsin. Since then, over seventy-five thousand book exchanges have been registered through the Little Free Library group. Registering consists of filling out a form on the organization’s website, adding your book exchange’s location to their world map, and purchasing one of their charter signs engraved with your library’s unique number.

There are a number of book exchanges, or book-houses, scattered around the Danforth that are not officially registered and won’t appear on the organization’s map. I had it set as a summer challenge to find them all while out exploring and, a year later, I am still discovering new locations. While trying to seek out these marked and unmarked book exchanges, I was also able to explore more of the neighbourhood and found myself walking down streets I’d never passed through before.

The idea with these book exchanges is to take a book, read a book, and leave a book. You can borrow what others have left, or you can leave your own recommendation for others to discover.

While reading may seem like an independent activity, there’s a sense of personality and fellowship in reading what others have recommended. It’s different from a bookstore’s bestseller list, because no one is trying to get you to spend money or increase a statistic of popularity. Instead, a collective body of people who love books wants to share the stories they enjoyed with others.

That sense of togetherness, however abstract it may be, given the solitary nature of reading, is at the heart of what a community is. Book exchanges challenge the idea of reading being restricted to an individual body by opening the ways we are exposed to literature and stories. Although the way we interact with other readers tends to be anonymous, the hidden network of people who use book exchanges is the product of a collective engagement. There are no restrictions on who can use book exchanges either—you just read, discover, and repeat.

I have seen a lot of people around the Danforth area interacting with book exchanges, and it’s fascinating to see different behaviours. Some are confident in approaching book-houses, and others look like it’s their first time, nervously peeking inside. I often see two siblings take books and start reading them while walking to school, and once I saw someone jump for joy and immediately reach inside to pull out whatever title had caught their eye. They scurried down the street after, shyly avoiding eye contact with me as I passed by. Aware or not, anyone who uses these book exchanges is part of a much larger network and community that is encouraging a shared interest in reading and storytelling.

Introverts like me are learning more about their community based on the stories we share with others. I have picked up a number of titles I wouldn’t normally reach for, because I was curious about who in the area owned the book, and why they left it there for someone else to read. After finishing the book, I put it back and hoped someone else would learn something about someone they may never meet, based on a book they thought someone else might enjoy. It may seem disconnected, but there’s something very personal about a book recommendation, anonymous or not.

These libraries depend on a community’s engagement with them, and one of the best ways to encourage their continued presence around the Danforth is to participate! If you have any books you think others would enjoy, consider leaving them in a neighbour’s book exchange or starting one of your own. If you’re interested in learning something new about those who live nearby, think about taking a book with you the next time you pass a book exchange or Little Free Library. 

Below is how the piece appeared in On the Danforth, Spring 2020.

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