Editor's note: Todd Bol died Thursday morning, shortly after this story was published. It was read to him before he passed away.
Todd Bol built the first Little Free Library on his Hudson, Wis., deck with wood from his old garage door and love for his mother, who had recently died. Nine years and some 75,000 libraries-on-a-stick later, Bol is sick with pancreatic cancer and considering his own legacy.
That legacy, inspired by loss and luck and a knack for problem-solving, is wide: Little Free Libraries, a common sight in Minnesota, have popped up in 88 countries across the world.
Bol, 62, was in the Philippines when he realized something was wrong. In early October, he received the diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. After a single round of chemotherapy, more bad news: peritoneal cancer. Between those diagnoses and before moving into hospice care, Bol spoke for hours this month in his Hudson home about the power of the dollhouse-sized libraries and the people, whom his nonprofit dubs “stewards,” who care for them.
“If I may be so bold, I’m the most successful person I know,” Bol said, with a sideways smile, “because I stimulate 54 million books to be read and neighbors to talk to each other. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the very definition of success.
“If people get along and work together and share books, I’ll take that over Billionaire Bob’s money,” he continued.
“I wouldn’t switch my existence for Jeff Bezos or any of it.”
‘A spark’ in the community
Bol loves the libraries themselves — how people get creative in designing them, how many make use of repurposed materials. The library he fashioned to honor his father, who died in 2011, includes wood from his childhood bed and his grandma’s quilting rack. It stands, packed with books, in his front yard, beside the small red schoolhouse he made to honor his mom, June Bol.
But more and more, Bol sees the libraries as hubs, nudges, fulcrums. Books to get people reading — but also talking, listening, transforming. Little Free Library now works with law enforcement, turning police cruisers into bookmobiles. It launched Action Book Club last year, which encourages members to read books on timely topics, then do service projects together. The organization is also talking tutoring these days, because why not?
“Wouldn’t it be cool if every Little Free Library could connect you with tutoring?” Bol said, his eyes wide behind horn-rimmed glasses. “There are so many different ways of using Little Free Libraries as a spark within the community.”
Those big goals explain why Bol founded Little Free Library as a nonprofit in 2012, said his brother Tony Bol. After working with Little Free Library for five years, Tony is stepping into Todd’s speaking and public relations roles. “Everyone was trying to talk him into being a for-profit company,” Tony said, which would have allowed more flexibility and less accountability. But more than a decade ago, Todd was bounced from a company he founded to fix the nursing shortage, so he was wary of investors shifting an organization’s direction.
Todd Bol wanted the accountability, his brother continued. “He wanted to protect the mission.”
The nonprofit, which now has 13 employees in its Hudson office, is busy this week announcing Bol’s illness to the stewards who are registered with Little Free Library. Board chair Monnie McMahon is taking over the nonprofit’s day-to-day management.
Those who erect libraries in their front yards — or in parks, or at schools — feel close to the man who dreamed them up, Tony said. “He has a Johnny Appleseed quality of planting these things and keeping them going.”
On the radio, a while back, Bol heard a story about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was asked what he would do if he knew he were going to die tomorrow. “And he said he would plant a tree,” Bol said. “An apple tree. So I decided to do the same thing.
“With Little Free Library, everywhere we go, we try to plant seeds.”
One book at a time
In second grade, Bol earned an “E” in reading, which did not stand for “excellent.”
Bol has struggled with dyslexia, so reading was always tricky. “I love stories. And I love learning,” he explained. “I would never say I fell in love with reading.”
These days, he’s writing the foreword to a children’s book.
“Little Libraries, Big Heroes,” by Miranda Paul and illustrated by John Parra, is set to be released in 2019. “It’s pretty cool to have books written about what you’re doing,” Bol said. (Coffee House Press published “The Little Free Library Book” in 2015; a second edition is in the works.)
In conversation, Bol references books regularly. Madeleine Albright’s new “Fascism: A Warning” reminded him of the importance of critical thinking. Receiving his diagnosis, “I felt like I was in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ and I had walked into a different dimension.”
His favorite stories to tell, though, are the ones about Little Free Libraries. The police chief in Los Angeles who used one to help take back a neighborhood. The board member who put one up in honor of her son at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. The kids in the Philippines who painted “happiness rocks,” trading them with a local university for books.
“I can give you thousands of examples of people doing things across the globe,” he said, “fixing their neighborhood one book, one child at a time.”
In Little Free Library’s early days, Bol was passionate and entrepreneurial, as well as “really good at sucking people in to help him with his vision,” said Melissa Eystad, the nonprofit’s former director of organizational development. “Pretty soon my husband was involved.”
Her little library was early — No. 285 — and she watched as it became “just part of our neighborhood now.” It needs little stocking: Neighbors fill it and find treasures within it, she said.
Bol has been the “driving force” of Little Free Library, Eystad said, but she has no doubt the organization and the little library caretakers will continue its legacy long after he’s gone.
“I think there’s a bright future for Little Free Library as long as there are books around and the people who love them,” she said. “But there’s no replacing Todd, that’s for sure.”
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna