By John Burton
HIGHLANDS – Books and reading are important to Christine Mihok.
When Super Storm Sandy blasted through Highlands last October, severely damaging the borough’s small, modest library and putting its future in jeopardy, Mihok found a way to bring books to Highlands readers.
With the support of the borough council, Mihok established the Little Free Library on Waterwitch Avenue, making books available through an honor system.
The name is something of a misnomer for those who think of a “library” as a structure with books, videos, magazines and a librarian. The “library” in this case is more akin to a large home mailbox or birdfeeder. It sits atop a cement post in front of the Water Witch Coffee and Tea Company, 67 Waterwitch Ave.
The borough re-established its public library about 2 ½ years ago, operating out of the community center, at the corner of Snug Harbor Avenue and Beach Boulevard, and independently of the county library system. Borough Councilwoman Tara Ryan described it as “a really old fashioned library. Well used and well loved.” It relied on old-school card catalogs and the efforts of volunteers like Mihok.
But, the library was devastated by the storm. Flooding caused considerable damage to the entire community center. “We’re not sure if we’re going to rebuild,” Ryan said.
Mihok, a lover of books and reading, stepped up, Ryan said Mihok read about the Little Free Library program, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based not-for-profit organization, and applied for a grant the program offers to get one for the community and was awarded one of the “libraries.”
The mission of Little Free Library is to promote literacy, a love of reading and a sense of community worldwide by establishing free book exchanges, according to the organization’s website.
Little Free Library organization is looking to establish 2,510 of their libraries to match – and exceed – the number of libraries built by Andrew Carnegie. It has established little libraries around the country and around the world, including in Africa and Australia.
“The whole idea is to put them in areas where people don’t have easy access to libraries,” Mihok said.
Mihok, her husband and Kenny Haber, who owns the Baking Company located in the same building as the coffee and tea company, installed the library box after it was delivered in late April. It’s painted in bright colors, has a door that closes to keep out the rain and is decorated with artwork reflecting the seashore. It can hold about 3 dozen books.
“It’s adorable,” Ryan said.
Since starting, about 300 books have moved in and out of the library in a box, according to Ryan and Mihok.
“It is potluck,” as to which books someone will find as people pick up one and drop off another, Ryan noted.
Mihok has been advising people to drop off titles that area schools recommend to students for summer reading.
Ryan said a local 12 year old, who has been coming by since the Little Free Library was installed, told her, “It’s like magic,” the way new books keep coming.
Monika Ivy, a Highlands resident, stopped by earlier in the week with her 5-year-old daughter, Devon, to exchange books.
They pass the library every day on their way to and from Highlands Elementary School with Devon regularly exchanging books.
“You know, you go to Barnes & Noble and you buy the kids books and they read them and they’re not that interested in them that long,” Ivy said. “I think this is awesome. I think when I finish my book I’ll put it in there.”
Mihok lives in Philadelphia, Pa., and grew up in Atlantic Highlands. She continues to feel a connection to the area, especially to its libraries, remembering the role the Atlantic Highlands library once played in her childhood when she went there on Saturdays with her mother. “It was our day out,” she said.
Ryan sees the Little Free Library as a viable way for residents who don’t have transportation or Internet access or e-readers to go to a brick-and-mortar library to get books into their hands.
“When books are right there, you don’t need a library card,” she said.
Mihok hopes to get another library box to put on the other side of town to make it more accessible for those living there.