Why the Case of the Book Crook Raiding Austin’s Little Libraries May Stay on the Shelf

Jun 15, 2016

He’s cleared out one joint six times in just the past few months. In one video captured by a homeowner, he wore gloves. And he often doesn’t bother to close doors behind him. 

According to at least four Austin residents, one man has not been playing by the rules of neighborhood Little Free Libraries. The man is said to have been emptying the book trade depositories throughout the city. The libraries, which often look like roomy birdhouses, are posted like mailboxes on front lawns. The idea is to encourage book sharing among neighbors. Passersby are encouraged to “take a book, return a book.”

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

“It’s very disturbing,” said Jenny Hodgkins, who lives on Crestwood Road off Airport Boulevard and runs a Little Free Library. “We come home and the doors are open…and it’s just completely empty.”

While the Austin Police Department has one complaint on file, Detective Robert Burnham said the case will be closed by Wednesday. Not because the suspect’s been caught, but because there’s no real crime to prosecute.

“I got a crook that found a loophole,” said Burnham. “You have a sign out there that says 'free books,' and somebody’s taking advantage of your kindness.”

"I got a crook that found a loophole. You have a sign out there that says 'free books', and somebody's taking advantage of your kindness."

Still, some residents have not been disheartened. They believe the man has been selling these books. So, Hodgkins bought a Little Free Library stamp online and has begun stamping every book that goes into her library. They reached out to local used book stores, asking them not to buy stamped books. 

“Lately, we’ve not been taking anything with Little Free Library stamps,” said Drew Miller, a manager at Half Price Books on North Lamar. “But that’s really the most we can do, besides if someone comes in and they’re the confirmed stealer of these books.”

A wanted poster made and distributed by an Austin resident after books were taken from her mini-library.
Credit Mike O'Brien for KUT

Two residents are trying to halt this book mooch at the library doors. South Austin resident Barbara Hale, whose own library has been hit four times, has created a wanted poster. Using a non-stop camera, she caught a few grainy photos of the man’s face. So far, she’s circulated these posters to two other libraries in the neighborhood.  

Oakmont Heights resident Matthew Elsass caught the freeloader in action.

“The loophole is, he’s allowed to take a book. The problem is, he’s just taking all the books.”

Elsass recently caught the rule-breaking book-borrower on video. After the suspect emptied his little library, Elsass placed a motion-sensor camera in a tree with a good view of his front lawn – and his little library.

“Through the whole week I went through a thousand pictures of it going off, and there’s still a lot of people that go through our library and look through it and trade out books…kids, adults, teenagers,” he said. But then, one man caught his eye.

In the video, which Elsass posted to YouTube, a silver truck pulls up to the library just past 8 p.m. A figure wearing white gloves takes what appears to be most of the books out of the library, throwing them through the passenger window. He then takes the remainder of the books with him into the driver’s seat, before pulling away.

"The library doesn't just belong to them, it belongs to everybody in the community. So when there's one individual that's taking advantage of that generosity, I think that's one of the reasons people get up in arms."

Margret Aldrich is the media relations and program manager with Little Free Libraries. Started in 2009 by one Wisconsin man, the non-profit helps would-be librarians register their libraries – outfitting them with a sign and a place on the organization’s global map of libraries.

Aldrich said such rampant taking is rare.

“When someone sets up a little free library, they’re really giving a gift to the neighborhood,” said Aldrich. “The library doesn’t just belong to them, it belongs to everybody in the community. So, when there’s one individual that’s taking advantage of that generosity, I think that’s one of the reasons people get up in arms and help support the little free library that’s been taken from.”

And while criminal law does not recognize these acts as those of a caper, Oakmont Heights resident Kelly Daghlian, whose own library was hit two weeks ago, said it’s a crime of a different nature.

“It’s a moral crime, because it’s a pay-it-forward program,” she said.  “When you have a guy like this come by and take all your books from you, you not only feel violated, but you feel like he has no moral code.”

Then there’s the off-chance that this man’s intentions are good.

Hodgkins and her two kids stood beside their homegrown library on a recent Monday afternoon. The library looks like a small house – white walls beneath a red-shingled roof. Peer through the glass doors and you can make out roughly 20 books, even a CD about the art of beekeeping.

Ingrid Smith, Hodgkins’ 9-year-old daughter, said the man who took too many books inspired her to write a tale. In it, a man named Timothy takes all the books from his local Little Free Libraries. He takes them home and clones the books. Then, he resells them.

“He wanted the money so that he could donate it all to the orphanage, because he had been an orphan,” said Smith. “He wanted the orphans at the town’s orphanage to have books just like he did, because he realized books were such an important part of his life.”