Wandering up Australia Street Newtown on the way to get our morning coffee fix the other day, my wife and I spied what looked from a distance like a doll-house, bird feeder or even some kind of religious shrine, affixed to a brick wall on the corner of a side-alley.
Our curiosity piqued, we took a closer peek, and spied through the glass front door of this gabled and gaily-painted structure that it housed not doll furniture, birdseed or offerings to spirits or divinities, but books.
Free books, in fact, as a plaque proclaimed this attractive structure to be a ‘Street Library’ giving passers-by the opportunity to ‘Take a book. Give a book. Whatever. Enjoy!’
Such liberal, indeed libertarian sentiments are far from surprising to anyone who’s familiar with Newtown. In fact ‘whatever’ seems to sum-up the whole suburb and the easy-come, easy go attitudes of its inhabitants to pretty well everything from lifestyles, fashions, hairstyles and bodily decoration to forms of substance use and abuse, sexual preferences and expressions of gender identity.
And there’s even a restaurant in Newtown, the brilliantly-named ‘Lentil As Anything’, that serves fantastic vegetarian food for which patrons are free to pay however much or little they can afford, even if it’s nothing at all, and nobody even monitors the amount you put in the honesty box at the exit.
So the ‘Street Library’ concept of free books didn’t strike my wife and I as in any way surprising. After all, there’s such a glut of good used or pre-perused books in Sydney that some people put their excess volumes in boxes out on the footpath with ‘Free’ or ‘Take Me’ signs on them.
Then there is the wealth of municipal and other public lending libraries with no joining or subsequent membership fees and whose books – not to mention DVDs and magazines – can be borrowed absolutely free of charge as long as they’re returned on time.
And most if not all of these libraries also extend their services to free home-delivery and pick-up of books for borrowers who are too ill, old or infirm to leave home.
Then, for those of us who are perfectly able to get to the library and back, but, as in my case you don’t much enjoy spending hours browsing among all the books because you can’t smoke while you’re about it, or also like me you find it painful to return those extra-special books you’d love to keep for yourself, there are endless sources of books on sale for next to nothing.
My favourite places to buy cheap books are opportunity shops, or op-shops for short, of which there must be thousands around Sydney run by charities dedicated to giving some donated goods away to clients in dire need of them, and selling the surplus at a profit for the purpose of funding their good works.
I drop into op-shops whenever and wherever I can on the chance of picking-up more bargain books, but my regular shopping-circuit around Sydney’s so-called Inner West is pretty much confined to the Vinnie’s (St Vincent de Paul), Red Cross, Cat Protection Society and St Luke’s shops in Newtown and the Salvo’s (Salvation Army’s) store in Marrickville.
And it’s amazing how many great reads I manage to find at prices ranging from 25c on up to $2 each or 3 for $6.
So, to return to the point of this piece, the charm and interest of Street Library my wife and I spotted in Newtown was not so much that it provides free books for both the taking and either giving back or keeping, as we’ve long been patronizing a similarly free but much bigger book-swapping facility that we check-out every week when we buy our groceries at Marrickville Metro Shopping Centre.
What struck us as so special about this Street Library was how much loving care had clearly been lavished on its design, construction and decoration, plus the fact that it also carried a most endearing dedication.
‘Jason Daley Memorial,’ this message read, with added cryptic comment that ‘he dug a good hole.’ Compared with such grave remarks as ‘RIP’, ‘At Rest’ and all those other commonplaces, not to say clichés, customarily employed to mourn the sorely-missed, this struck me as highly distinctive.
And, into the bargain, so replete with double meaning, that it put me in mind of the kind of deliberately ambiguous or confusing clues with which Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton and countless other writers of classic crime fiction contrive to throw us readers off the scent.
I’ve been wondering ever since what kind of digging Mr. Daley did. Did he dig as in excavate holes in the road, or trenches for cables and pipes, or graves, or goldmines? Or was he a golfer who played so badly that he dug holes as in divots out of the fairways and greens?
Or, on the other hand, maybe he was given to digging in the hipster sense of comprehend, appreciate or enjoy, in which case the good holes he dug would likely have been watering-holes, or in other words pubs and clubs, or even, for that matter, fishing or swimming holes.
Intensive research could well reveal the solution to this mystery, but unfortunately, though I have any amount of time for it, I don’t have the patience.
One piece of research I have done, however, has been to take a look at the web address emblazoned on the Street Library in Australia Street Newtown. And if you take a moment to visit www.streetlibrary.org.au too, you could be as delighted as I was to learn that this neighbourhood book-swapping idea is catching on all around Australia.
You can buy a Street Library through the site, or instructions as to how to build your own. The whole idea being to place it on your own property, but within easy reach of people strolling by on the footpath, for the two simple but satisfying purposes of sharing the joys of reading and creating connections within your community.
I sure dig the whole idea of Street Libraries, but unhappily my wife and I won’t be setting one up anytime soon, as the landlady of our flat would definitely not dig our digging holes in its front wall. So we’ll have to settle for sticking to our same old ways of practising library lib, in the hope that one of the Street Libraries that we visit in the future to ‘take a book, give a book, whatever, enjoy!’ will be yours.