VERNON COUNTY - We took a long Sunday drive on a narrow rural road, lined on both sides with chicory and Queen Anne’s lace, to the middle of nowhere. I was on a mission. I was about to channel Nancy Drew.
Let me back up a little. I’ve always liked libraries. As a child, I loved the bookmobile. Bookstores are my favorite stores to while away a day, and Little Free Libraries have stolen my heart.
On the eastern side of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Upper Michigan, in a wide spot on the road near Lac La Belle, there’s a row of mailboxes where I always ask Dane to pull over. It’s the longest row of mailboxes I’ve ever seen. I imagine that everything in this community happens at those mailboxes. We were pleasantly surprised a few years ago, when we noticed, perched on a pole next to all the mailboxes, a tiny house-like structure, big enough to hold a couple of handfuls of books. It was our introduction to Little Free Libraries.
A Little Free Library is a free book exchange based on the principle of “take a book, return a book.” They come in all shapes and sizes and are located not only all over the United States but in several other countries too.
Inside that miniature house I found a book I was interested in and left a book I had finished. Dane took a book of Sam Shepard plays. Now, whether we are driving, biking, or out walking, we make a point of stopping at all the little libraries we see.
While working in Grant County this summer, Dane discovered a Little Free Library. He came home and told me about it, adding that he was surprised at its location: on a sharp curve of a quiet county road. There were no houses nearby, just a locked red gate behind which a long driveway disappeared among the trees.
Dane pulled over, noticing that there were no other cars on the road. He walked up to the library, opened the door—and the first thing he saw was a wallet.
He opened the wallet and found two $20 bills inside. He was stunned and quickly closed the wallet, put it back inside the library, and never even looked at the books.
Two weeks later, while working in the same area, Dane again went to the library and discovered that the wallet was still there. Best of all, it still contained the two $20 bills.
Dane’s story captured my imagination, and I hounded him with a thousand questions. Did he look to see if there was an ID in the wallet? Did it look like anybody had been there since his first visit? Was the wallet old or new looking?
A month after he first told me about the little library, Dane drove me out to see it. It was driving me batty that he wouldn’t snoop any further, beyond opening up the wallet. I was determined to figure out the mystery. I was going to look inside the wallet for clues to who the owner was. I would crack the mystery, return the wallet, and feel good about it.
Unlike Dane, I was fully prepared to snoop. I didn’t grow up reading Nancy Drew books by flashlight under my bedcovers for nothing. I was born for this mystery. After all, $40 is a lot of money and someone would be happy to get it back.
But no such luck. There was hardly anything else inside the wallet, just a plain sheet of unlined paper with ag store purchases written in pencil. I speculated that it must belong to an Amish farmer, and we left it there once more, hoping the rightful owner would find it. I was a Nancy Drew failure. There simply were not enough clues.
I tried to forget about the wallet, the library, and the books we’d never even looked at. But I found myself asking Dane every day he worked whether he’d gone past the library again and if he had stopped and checked.
Eventually, he was in the area again and made a point of stopping. This time the wallet was gone, hopefully to its rightful owner. Now where the wallet once sat were a pair of wire-framed glasses. Maybe this free library is really a lost-and-found.
Unfortunately, there was also a hornets’ nest just above the library’s tiny door. Dane was prepared with books he had brought to leave in the library: ‘Leaves of Grass,’ a collection of William Blake, and a copy of my own book ‘Not a Perfect Fit.’ He wasn’t prepared for the hornets’ nest.
I’m looking forward to going back with Dane soon to take care of that hornets’ nest. We’ll also leave a few books, and if we find anything interesting we’ll take one or two. Nancy Drew I’m not, but I am a lover of a Little Free Library—especially a mysterious one in such an unexpected setting.