Co-founder of Little Free Libraries, in Princeton, Illinois

8/11/22

So, the other day I mentioned a phone call I had had with a fascinating person. That person was Rick Brooks, and I am excited to report that I am staying with him and his wife Sarah tonight and tomorrow, here in Princeton, Illinois (population 7,589).

You’ve probably heard of—and quite possibly seen—Little Free Libraries. Years ago, when I started seeing them in Portland, I assumed they were a homegrown Portland thing. (Similar libraries had indeed begun in Portland in the late ‘90s, courtesy of the also-amazing Mark Lakeman’s City Repair Project.) But no! As it turns out, the Little Free Libraries were the brainchild of (the late) Todd Bol and Rick Brooks. They placed the first library in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, and now there are more than 150,000 of the tiny libraries in more than 110 countries around the world. (Regular readers may recall that I was surprised to find one in an unexpected place in Virginia, back in early May.)

I learned of Rick at the Kalamazoo train station a couple of weeks ago, when I disembarked my bus from Grand Rapids, and met an intriguing fellow named Will Juntunen. He took great interest in my rig, taking some video with his phone to post on a Facebook reel to his followers later. I gave him my card, and he messaged me through my site later to suggest I contact Rick, because “the two of you share a wish to restore the American commons.” I was a bit nervous to reach out to Rick, as a complete stranger, but I know that such risk-taking and edge-pushing are a big part of my “mission” in life, and especially on this journey, so I sent him a text… and next thing you know, a few days later I was boarding an Amtrak train to Princeton.

First I bade a fond farewell this morning to my wonderful Warrenville hosts Terri and Jim (and the three of four cats in the household who weren’t cowering in fear of humans) and took off on my rig to reach the train station in Naperville, about six miles south of Warrenville. (I stopped for lunch at that amazing sushi place we visited the other night in Naperville, but unfortunately it seemed much less magical as a daytime takeout experience.)

On the way to the station, about half my route took me through more of the Warrenville area’s beautiful greenways, including one park with a freshly paved bike path—a dream!

The Naperville station had a cool tunnel to reach the westbound side of the tracks, which gave me some cool midcentury/Kubrick vibes.

When the train arrived, it was a Superliner! My first Superliner since New Orleans, back in early March. I love those trains, and it did not disappoint. And, I got to sit next to an amazing woman named Carol, an avid cyclist in her 80s who is one of Rick and Sarah’s neighbors! (Hi, Carol, if you’re reading this!)

We laughed at the small-world nature of it all (this train runs from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles, so what are the odds?) and then Rick met us both at the station, where he maintains an office.

The station was housed in a cool old building, and his office was cool, too. (The office even contained several large giraffe sculptures, made by a South African artist, and we chatted about how he might be able to use them to promote Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication in town. The giraffe is a symbol of NVC, a heart-centered language, since the giraffe has the largest heart of any land mammal.)

Rick and Sarah had moved to Princeton (her family’s hometown) in 2015, after several decades in Madison, Wisconsin. Ever since their arrival here, Rick has jumped headfirst into community projects and organizing. I have quite possibly never met anyone with as wide-ranging and deep-reaching visions—coupled with effective action!—as this man.

He founded a nonprofit called Midwest Partners; please click through to the site to see what I mean about the breadth of his vision and endeavors.

He gave me a brief tour of Princeton while we waited for our Thai food to be prepared at the truck where we ordered it.

First, in his office, he invited me to look at all the posters celebrating local businesses and community members. Princeton is located off Exit 56 from Illinois Highway 80, so he had the idea to highlight 56 “reasons we love Princeton.”

It was really cool to look at the various posters, including one for The Bike Place, another of Rick’s brainchildren. It is a bike shop where the workers receive new and used bikes at little to no cost (donations from individuals, and unused inventory from Walmart that would otherwise be destined for the landfill) and then sell and donate them after fixing them up. Rick showed me their existing shop, but was also very pleased to point out to me the site of their new shop, where they will be relocating next month. The new shop will be in much better structural condition, and it will also have a pollinator garden outside, and a community space for concerts and other gatherings.

Then we walked over to the town’s main street, and he showed me two new alleyway plazas that he played a large role in creating. One of them contained outdoor furniture covered in mosaics made by local residents, using pieces of their families’ dinnerware and china, so that they could preserve the memory of it in a public space where people could also take wedding or prom photos.

Afterward, on the way to the house, we passed some beautiful old homes, including a lovingly restored purple one with a custom-made matching Little Free Library right outside it. (Sadly my photo of the two of them didn’t turn out because of the setting sun, but I managed to capture the back side of the library.)

Then we passed by the house of a local resident couple with solar panels on their roof, an amazingly lush and bursting summer flower garden, and a Little Free Library (first pic in this post) with its own “green roof” on top.

There was much more we discussed—including over our al fresco dinner at their homestead, topped off with a breathtaking Sturgeon moon that upstaged the magical fireflies—but I should wrap this up.

I’m looking forward to spending tomorrow here in Princeton, too. What an unexpected gem on my journey.

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5 thoughts on “Co-founder of Little Free Libraries, in Princeton, Illinois”

  1. I was born and raised in Princeton now I live in Mendota IL for about 3 years now. we also have those mini libraries all over this town. Along with food pantries,ones that look just like the libraries and they follow the same concept.Its a wonderful thing to do! I love the idea behind all of this.It really brings people together and shows how united a small community can truly be.

    1. Oh, that’s so cool; I was really delighted to visit Princeton. What a wonderful place! And yes, I see the Little Free Libraries and Little Free Pantries all over the country. (Lots here in the Northwest, where I am now!) It’s such a great concept.

    1. Marc,
      Wow is the word! As you know, ‘Because It’s Small” is my favorite film, too, about Little Free Libraries. Interesting to learn how Maren’s travels and observations have reached around the country and the world. Good to know you are still at it producing thought provoking stories in Israel.
      Thanks, Maren and Marc. And thank you, Will Juntinen, for sending Maren our way.

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