They're not birdhouses, and they're not quite mailboxes.
The new wooden structures popping up in parks and front lawns across the North Shore are actually miniature book depots that encourage passersby to pick up a new book and share one of their favorites with the rest of the community.
The first Little Free Library was constructed two years ago by Todd Bol of Hudson, WI. Now there are an estimated 1,800 libraries across the world, and the Little Free Library organization hopes to see at least 2,510 Little Free Libraries worldwide, according to the group's website.
New to Whitefish Bay
So far, there are at least two Little Free Libraries in Shorewood, another at Kletzsch Park in Glendale, and in Bayside, at Ellsworth Park and the Village Hall parking lot.
Whitefish Bay's first Little Free Library popped up outside Christ Church on Lake Drive in late July. The Rev. Seth Dietrich said the Little Free Libray idea came from parishioner Catherine Davidson, and the wooden structure — complete with a church steeple and stained glass — was built free of charge by woodworker Bob Holmes.
Dietrich said the Little Free Library has been heavily used by people walking and driving by the well-trafficked area just north of Sendik's. The Little Free Library is in the front portion of the church's meditation garden, which is open to the public to sit on benches, eat their lunch and talk with each other.
The books at Christ Church's Little Free Library are specifically targeted for spiritual exploration and growth, Dietrich said. While some non-spiritual books have been added to the mix, Dietrich said people have added a wide variety of different books about spirituality over the past two months.
"We know there are a lot of people who aren't going to join our church and may never join our church, but we want to meet them wherever they are at in their life and find a way to be a nourishing force," he said. "We want to be a blessing for the community, even if it's in a small way."
Accessory structures like Little Free Libraries are not legally allowed in front yards under Whitefish Bay's village ordinance, but Paul Launer, Whitefish Bay's building inspector, has so far turned a blind eye to Christ Church building the structure without a permit.
Now that another resident has applied for a permit to build a Little Free Library, Launer went before the Village Board Monday night to ask the elected officials their opinion on whether they should be allowed and how they should be regulated.
"It's really not a battle I want to take on," Launer said. "We have to decide if we are going to allow it, ignore it or come up with some sort of design guideline.
"At some point one neighbor is going to have a three-foot by three-foot, another neighbor will have a six-foot by six-foot, and then there's the king of all of them at the end of the street with a 12-by-12 walk-in."
Village Attorney Chris Jaekels said the Village Board decided many years ago that Whitefish Bay would not have mailboxes, or even newspaper boxes, in residential areas, so the matter of whether front yard structures should be allowed is a public policy decision best left to village trustees.
The board discussed whether the village should regulate the size of the structures, whether they should be reviewed by the Architectural Review Committee for aesthetics, whether maintenance should be enforced and whether a potential for vandalism exists.
Trustees mostly agreed the Little Free Libraries should be allowed in the village, but village staff should sketch out some standard dimensions and design guidelines to incorporate into the village ordinances.
"It grates on me to put in some rule on this, but there's already this rule on structures in front lawns so it seems we have to address it," said Trustee Jay Miller.
Village President Julie Siegel said she was concerned about seeing too many Little Free Libraries in the village, and said she would not like to see them in residential areas. She also said the structures could be the target of vandalism, and she said she would like to check in on the issue again in six months to determine if vandalism of Little Free Libraries has been a problem.