Story by Thom Callahan courtesy of the Akronist
For those who appreciate art and possess a passion for books, both can be fulfilled in the courtyard adjacent to the Angel Falls Coffee Company, where the sleek, ready-to-read Highland Square Little Free Library opened recently.
“It’s a very communal thing, and I’m hoping that once the neighborhood realizes it’s here, it will become another place to meet in Highland Square,” notes Victoria Ramey.
An employee of the Main Library for the past three years and resident of the Square, Ramey will oversee the free library and was the catalyst for its installation. About a year ago, she came across the free library concept online and thought, “Our neighborhood would be perfect for this; we’re very literate.”
Free libraries are growing in popularity — and on a global level. As of January this year, more than 15,000 Little Free Libraries have popped up all over the world, according to www.littlefreelibrary.org.
Open to all, the Highland Square Little Free Library allows readers to take and/or leave gently used books. The books run the gamut in genre. Periodicals such as the New York Times, Advocate, Out and Psychology Today magazines also line the shelves.
“‘I’m hoping the neighborhood really starts to contribute because I’m excited to see what kind of information is going to be shared because this is such a diverse area,” Ramey says. “My only limitation is I do not want any kind of hateful material.”
Donations come from area folks, with the bulk of books donated by the Highland Square Library across the street.
Libraries constantly “weed” through books, which have to go somewhere, says Ramey. And when library book sales don’t rid of the glut of books no longer needed or which lack shelf space, well …
“There’s plenty of books, and they [Highland Square Library] were very, very generous,” Ramey recalls. “They let me go back and pick out things — with their supervision, of course.”
Some may ask why have a miniature library right across the street from a larger bricks-and-mortar version? “Well, I thought, ‘How could we extend the library’s work into the community even further?’” Ramey asks. “It’s more of a communion with the Highland branch. And it’s a way for neighbors to share books with one another.”
After doing some research, Ramey had to find a free library location before pitching the idea. “Instantaneously, I thought, ‘Angel Falls,’ because it’s the center of Highland Square, the go-to place.”
She approached Angel Falls co-owner Jim King about locating the library in his courtyard. King, who’s been a good steward of the Highland Square community as well as one of its more ardent activists, was more than amenable to the idea. He financed the entire project.
Reading with a side of art
Many free libraries are constructed in quaint, wooden structures, some reminiscent of birdhouses. But King decided to bring his neighborhood’s free library to another level, commissioning a piece of art in the process.
With its sharp, contemporary triangular design, the free library is reminiscent of an arrowhead. Quite fitting, as it ties in well with other arrowheads in the vicinity marking the history of Portage Path, an American-Indian transportation route in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The plexiglass door of the free library is etched to look like a flint arrowhead with knapping, a series of strike marks used to make tools and other items fashioned from flint and other materials.
“I thought it was just a cool idea,” King recalls. “And I wanted to have something more architectural as well. The library is more of a public art. My mother was an artist, and she would have appreciated all of this.”
King enlisted some local talent to help design and build the free library. Chuck Ayers is a local cartoonist who for many years created political cartoons for the Akron Beacon Journal and also illustrates the comic strips Crankshaft and Funky Winkerbean. He will design a motif that will embellish not only the free library’s structure but the setting which surrounds it as well.
“It will be a real Northeast, Ohio, Indian motif instead of the Plains’ Indians … teepees and all that stuff, and will continue on the limestone benches, which will be sent to Summit Memorials to be etched/sandblasted, ” King says. Steve Levey, an area general contractor and artist, designed the 750-pound library, and says he used “nine, 80-pound bags of cement for two and half feet deep of concrete” to support the structure.
John Comunale of Comunale Sculptural Concepts at Canal Place spent two weeks fabricating the library, made from Cor-Ten® steel, Levy adds. Cor-Ten® is a rolled form product with a natural oxidizing finish, making it resistant to the corrosive effects of rain, snow, ice, etc.
Ramey is thrilled with the outcome of the project. “It all seemed very serendipitous,” she says. “All were on board and everything fell into place.”
Rafael Oletta, King’s partner of 26 years and the co-owner of Angel Falls, which opened in 1996, was reluctant to reveal the cost of the library, citing instead that it was “very expensive.”
But, he adds: “I’ve said many times, we are the only walking neighborhood in Akron, so to speak, and we have to prove that. And we are doing our part.” King agrees. Tongue in cheek. Sort of.
“You have to give back to the community,” King says. “But you know it’s a selfish thing because it brings in customers because really, I am a bottom-line kind of guy.”
Oletta laughs, shakes his head. “I always feel you have to pay for good art,” King adds. Ramey fell in love with reading at a young age. She says she “spent my entire youth at Buckeye Bookshop,” a Brittain Road store founded by a former East High school librarian.
She worked in Pittsburgh at the massive and equally impressive Carnegie Homestead Library, built by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in the late 1800s. “Reading is so important because it’s a way to transmit knowledge and information,” Ramey offers. “Human beings throughout the centuries have been story tellers, and that’s part of our nature, being human …”
The free library holds just so many books, so if a donor would like to donate a large number of books, they are first asked to email Ramey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A free library is wonderful,” Ramey adds. “We have so much we can offer each other, and anytime we can do that, it’s good for us.”