PATERSON — Eight-year-old Nyomi McGuire and her father were walking past Tyrone Collins Park recently as Talena Queen was restocking a book-sharing drop-box.
The McGuires were not familiar with Queen’s “Little Free Library” exchange program. “Anybody can take them?” asked the father, Nygel. “Go ahead,” he nodded to his daughter.
Nyomi picked one book about Christmas, because it’s her favorite holiday, and another with an illustration of clothed mice on its cover, because of her love of animals.
“I like reading,” the third-grader said.
Some folks were skeptical last year when Queen, a poet and teacher, wanted to install the book boxes in Paterson’s parks. The Little Free Library program — users can take a book to read or leave one for someone else — is already a national phenomenon, with 70,000 exchanges established around the country, according to the Wisconsin-based group that started the initiative in 2009.
But doubters warned Queen that Paterson was different.
“They thought people would stash their drugs in them,” Queen said, “or that people would just ruin them.”
She was undeterred.
“I believe we can’t make fear-based decisions,” she added, explaining her decision to give the program a try.
The success of Queen’s Paterson program, which established the Little Free Libraries in 15 city parks, has proved the skeptics wrong, so much so that she recently won an education award from the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, a nonprofit group that works with state government on environmental programs.
“Ms. Queen found an exceptional way to build pride in Paterson’s parks. People and families who enjoy use of these park-based lending libraries are more likely to keep their parks clean by recycling and not littering,” said the council’s executive director, Sandy Huber.
Various Paterson community groups and public officials have embraced the Little Free Libraries, donating used books, money for the drop-boxes, or time in tending to the 15 locations. The drop-boxes themselves are not very large; they’re usually wooden shelf-like contraptions.
Anything to encourage reading
“I’m glad the community has rallied around this,” said Rosie Grant, director of the Paterson Education Fund, an advocacy group. “There are now more places in Paterson where people can get books and more opportunities for people to read.”
Grant’s organization in January started a similar program, with 13 exchange sites inside churches, community centers and barbershops.
The head of the New Jersey Library Association said she was glad to hear about the success of the Little Free Library initiative in Paterson.
“We’re seeing them start in all kinds of communities,” said Patricia Tumulty of the state association. “We don’t see them as competition or anything like that. We support anything that encourages reading.”
Some initial bumps
Queen acknowledged that in some cases, the warnings of trouble proved true. For example, someone set off fireworks in the Little Free Library in Cobb Park right after it was installed, destroying the box and leaving its broken pieces behind, she said.
“We had some problems with the drug dealers in Barbour Park,” Queen added. At one point last year, vandals knocked the Little Free Library in Barbour Park off its pedestal, broke the door from its hinges and smashed its glass window, she said.
The destruction of the library box helped rally local residents as part of broader effort to reclaim Barbour Park, Queen said. Community activist Casey Melvin repaired the box and re-installed it.
“I’m happy about anything that increases literacy in our city,” Melvin said. “In this case, the positive has overwhelmed the negative.”
While different community groups tend to the boxes in their local neighborhoods, Queen periodically drives around to different locations, replenishing the boxes with books, removing damaged ones, and sometimes making changes to suit the use patterns of the different sites.
One recent morning, the Little Free Library in Collins Park on Presidential Boulevard was jammed with so many books that four were strewn on the ground below. Among the selections inside the box were Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat,” a comic book version of Homer’s “The Iliad,” and Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times.”
One park as microcosm of the city
In many ways, Collins Park reflects the best and worst of Paterson. The nearby basketball courts are a hub of joyous recreation, while the area around the picnic tables is littered with empty liquor bottles and ripped glassine packets that used to contain heroin.
Across the street is School 28, which houses the Paterson Gifted and Talented program, where students have achieved test scores surpassing those of every other school in Passaic County. Around the corner is the takeout chicken restaurant where 14-year-old Nazerah Bugg was fatally shot four years ago when she was caught in gang gunfire.
The Little Free Library at Collins Park is the first one that Queen installed, and it remains her favorite. She said children’s books and those with religious themes tend to be most popular at that box. Each of the 15 boxes has its own personality, based on the tastes of its readers, she said.
At Costello Park, Queen said, a batch of donated mystery novels were gone within a week. Books for older readers also seem to get taken more frequently at boxes in park plazas near bus stops, like the one at Pan-American Park on Market Street and another on Vreeland Avenue.
Queen grew up in Paterson and landed a job in broadcasting as she graduated with a journalism degree from Montclair State University. She ended up moving to Washington state, where she lived for 16 years.
On the West Coast, Queen taught middle school in a suburb of Seattle, where the campus had apple trees and the sky always seemed bright blue.
“I was teaching the CEOs’ kids and the astronauts’ kids,” Queen recalled. “But I was so sad. I wanted to come home. I guess it was a kind of guilt. I wanted to give back where I came from.”
Queen returned to Paterson in 2015. She brought with her from Washington the idea for the Little Free Library.
But things in the suburb where she lived on the West Coast were different, Queen said. People there installed the book exchange boxes in front of their homes, she said.
Paterson, in contrast, is a city of “asphalt, concrete and renters,” Queens said. She had to adjust what worked elsewhere to fit the urban landscape of her hometown.
“People in Paterson don’t want to attract strangers to the front of the homes,” she said.
So Queen came up with the idea of locating the exchange boxes in the city parks and reached out to city officials and community leaders to get their cooperation. The city teachers’ union donated the money to buy three of the boxes, she said. Various other groups made other contributions, including books.
Queen staged neighborhood events for the installation of the exchange boxes. Children and local residents painted the artwork that decorates their outside surfaces.
Too many Paterson children don’t know much beyond the few blocks in their neighborhoods, she said. Queen had been one of them. “When I was growing up, the only people I knew who went to college were my teachers,” she said.
The Little Free Library program has become part of Queen’s effort to broaden the horizons for Paterson children. On Thursday, she drove from box to box, with books loaded in her back seat, adding new selections where she saw fit.
“Our goal was to have 15 boxes in three years,” she said. “We did it in one year. Now my goal is to have a box in all 44 parks.”
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