The final straw was a very large branch.
And when it fell on her son’s car, Sharalee Armitage Howard knew the centenarian tree in front of their Coeur d’Alene house had to go.
“He had literally just won the Hayden’s Got Talent competition,” Howard said of her juggling, harmonica-playing son, “and within a half hour a branch fell on his car.”
She and her husband had long figured they needed to remove the tree, but the most recent crash accelerated those plans. It was a daunting task: A few companies declined, telling them it was beyond their professional scope to remove it.
Finally a company agreed to take it down, but Howard had a thought: Why not make it into a Little Free Library?
That’s what they did, and the library she and her family created out of the base of the tree became an Internet sensation when it was discovered earlier this winter, with mentions on various local and national media, including Oprah’s website and MSN.com, and lengthy threads on Reddit and Facebook, where her original December 10 posting is up to 87,000 “likes,” another 13,000 comments and more than 103,000 shares.
So yes, this project is her most noticeable yet. A little unexpectedly.
“I’m really surprised by attention,” she said. “I am always making cool things, so I’m always posting pictures of what I have created. It’s normal to get 100 likes on something.”
Not that Howard did this for attention. She works at the Coeur d’Alene Library, and a few years ago she started taking classes in Colorado to learn how to bind books “the way they were made 100 years ago,” she said, leather bound and as much an artform themselves as the stories they contain.
For a school auction a few years ago she made a little library and even bid on it until she couldn’t afford to anymore.
So when that cottonwood needed to go, her artistic bent took over, and she planned out how she might go about preserving a part of it.
The result is like something you would read about in a story.
On a street lined with trees of all ages, this one is now just 10 feet tall and about 4 feet across. Instead of a canopy of branches it is capped with a pointed roof, which is now insulated by a few inches of February snow. There is a light just below the roofline that, even on an overcast morning, was lit.
The roof’s trim is painted green to match the fence and the house behind it. Cut into the rugged bark is a bookcase with a blue door, hobbit-sized but rectangular and inlaid with glass. The door’s hardware is ornate, and a swinging, rotating latch holds it shut.
Thirteen tiny wooden books line the smaller trim above the door. Each has a printed title, chosen by Howard, her husband and their four children. They range from older classics like “Moby Dick” and “Little Women” to modern titles like “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson.”
Inside the library, in which all three shelves are lit, are all manner of titles: “Dear John” by Nicholas Sparks, “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien and many children’s titles like “Garfield Listens to His Gut.”
Those titles will rotate out as people ascend the stone steps—footprints in the snow attested that many had recently in addition to the dozens who came through before that—to take and trade books, which is entirely the point, of course.
“There is really only so much room in a bookcase anyway, so when you finish it, what do you do with it?” she said. “This way you know it’s going to be free for the next person, and you’re giving them that thrill, like finding a treasure, a bit of unexpected goodness.”
The library looks like it belongs and has been with the 110-year-old house for years, which, in effect, it has.
Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that intends to increase access to books and grow community connections. It lists more than 80,000 libraries on its website.
There are a number of Little Free libraries in the area, including seven others in the 83814 zip code that are registered on the organization’s website, on which owners have shared a backstory.
Another, for example, was inspired by a “rotted 100-plus-year-old basement window,” which is now the centerpiece of a library six blocks away from Howard’s.
A different one, about a mile north, was built to match the house behind it, including an original pine cone rain chain. One owner has made a library as part of an entire makerspace where community members can experiment with and share tools and ideas.
Many other owners write in their descriptions how much they love reading and how building these libraries has sparked new friendships with neighbors. It becomes, in effect, a way to build a social network through conversations initiated by the exchanging of books.
But still, this library has generated attention far beyond this block of A Street.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” Howard said of its popularity. “One, people like the commitment to preserve something, just like an old building. It’s harder, but it’s worthwhile, rather than tearing it down. And I think people just appreciate something for everybody else, for the neighborhood. And I think there are people who appreciate the magic of it, that it’s unexpected.”
This isn’t the only project Howard has worked on. In the corner of her dining room is a dress she designed—and wore—made entirely out of old, unrepairable books. She donned with it a hat that has a caged bird on top of it, also made out of book parts.
Those are just her more recent projects. She would also like to do more and more book binding.
“It’s comforting to be able to see the mechanism in things, with everything so digitized,” she said. “So, creating a book from scratch, I like the antiquated form of it. There’s something very satisfying about creating something and understanding how it works.”
There is still a bit more to do with the library, she said.
Once spring comes, she would like to make it even more inviting by planting more vegetation around it, and there are spots where it needs more trim.
She hasn’t ruled out building more little libraries someday, either.
“It makes the world a fun place to live,” she said, “to have a surprise, to make life more interesting and fun.”