SAVANNAH — On a visit to Milwaukee last summer Heidi Bindhammer fell in love with an idea. Spread across that city, mostly in front yards, are dozens of dollhouse-like structures bursting with books, all free for the taking.
Bindhammer, a devoted reader, was in heaven.
"That was so luxurious because I have to have a stack of books, and when I get low on my books, I'm like 'Oh, no!'" she said. "And so there's always a library to go to."
Called Little Free Libraries, these community bookshelves are part of an international phenomenom that has been repeated more than 10,000 times since it started in Wisconsin in 2009, sharing upwards of 3 million books across the globe so far.
When Bindhammer, spouse, Adam Weber, and their son, Carlos Weber, 10, returned to Savannah, they knew they had to have their own Little Free Library.
Weber, who teaches physics at Savannah Country Day School, built it with scrap material over several weekends. He painted it red and yellow, stocked it with about a dozen books, repainted it after the first rain bubbled up the paint job and let the joy begin.
It wasn't long before they received an ecstatic handwritten note from a neighbor. That led to the idea of leaving a small guest book in the box. Students walking past the East 48th Street little library to nearby Savannah Arts Academy were among the first to write in it.
"This is such a wonderful idea," the teenagers wrote. "This is one of the things that makes me happy I'm alive."
Already hooked, the family was completely reeled in after that.
"I love sharing books," said Bindhammer, who teaches music at Savannah State Univeristy. "What's refreshing to me is to see that so many people read."
Children's books were the first to disappear.
"I don't know if it's the parents grabbing them or it's the kids," Weber said.
With their library only 4 months old, it's already about half full of donations from other readers, the couple noted.
The Little Free Library has its roots in a model of a one-room schoolhouse Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built in 2009 as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher who loved reading.
He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard with a sign that said "free books." When neighbors and friends responded enthusiastically, he built several more and gave them away.
The idea spread more quickly through Bol's collaboration with Rick Brooks of Madison, whom he met at a seminar on promoting green practices and a vibrant local economy.
Now a nonprofit corporation, Little Free Library operates a Facebook page and website where new libraries can register for $34.95, which includes a charter sign (made of 100-year-old barn wood), the right to get on the map and a growing collection of "How To" literature.
"A growing number of cities are beginning to put Little Free Libraries on their maps for visitors and tourism bureaus," said co-founder Rick Brooks in an email. "That's a good reason to encourage anyone to register and get on the map."
The Bindhammer/Weber household isn't the only Little Free Library in Savannah. In fact, Bindhammer has already started another one at SSU, though it doesn't show up yet in the official registry. But that list does show another library just blocks away in Ardsley Park built by teenagers Mary and Savannah Simmons and their stepmom, Katherine Simmons.
"The girls and I went out in the garage and put it all together," Katherine Simmons said. "We have an adult shelf and a kids shelf."
A library in Gordonston is "dedicated to Grandma."
"She read all the time," said Colleen Reynolds of that grandmother. Reynolds got the idea for the library from an article in a supplement to the Savannah Morning News.
"One day I was reading the weekend section and I saw that and I thought 'Oh my God we just have to do this,'" Reynolds said.
Modeled after their green, clapboard-sided bungalow, the tiny library was an instant hit last spring.
"Our neighbors love it," Reynolds said. There's even been talk of putting up more little libraries around Gordonston and theming them to specific genres.
Barbara Baker, a former journalist and college professor who works for the 62-plus program at Armstrong Atlantic State University, started what may have been the first official Little Free Library in Savannah when she designated a shelf in the program's office as one.
She read about the idea in a magazine, and the one-time chair of the Bryan County library board couldn't resist joining in.
"I like the idea of them sprouting in yards and, frankly, in offices," she said. "I really wish more people would do that. Any kind office could have one shelf where people exchange books."
Journalist Rob Walker is the steward of the Little Free Library in the Metro Star community garden at the corner of West 38th and Howard streets behind the Old Barnard Street Firehouse. Built by SCAD students, it's a little cramped for hardbacks, but still does the trick.
"I haven't seen a lot go in, but things vanish and that's the point," Walker said. "People use it."