Last year Logan Square got a new neighborhood library. Last month it unexpectedly got another one, on the sidewalk around the corner from Lula Cafe. It’s small, unfunded, and self-maintaining–in fact, it doesn’t have any employees at all. It’s easy to miss it altogether, but if you look again at what appears to be an old newspaper honor box, you’ll see the words on its side, painted in bright green over white puffy clouds: free books! Below, in smaller letters, is written: COMMUNITY BOOK EXCHANGE. LOGAN SQAURE BRANCH.
The exchange is the creation of Ryan Duggan, a Logan Square resident and graphic designer who’s a year out of Columbia College. “I kind of got the idea in my sleep,” he says. “One day I just woke up and thought, if I took one of those boxes and repainted it, I could fit a lot of books in there. Everyone has books worth reading that they’re not going to reread.” A free book exchange might get those books into the hands of people who would read them, Duggan thought. As the box says, “You give, you take, everyone reads!”
A few days after his dream, Duggan stole a Reader box. “I wore a work shirt and talked on the phone the whole time like I was a repairman. I was just talking to myself–‘Yeah, these hinges are broken. I’ll have to take it in.'” Then he hoisted the box onto a dolly he’d built out of two-by-fours and wheeled it home. A block before he arrived, the cart broke and he had to transfer the box into a neighbor’s wheeled garbage can. “I didn’t want to use a Reader box (I’m a big fan) but the shape was ideal,” he apologized by e-mail.
After repainting it and ripping out the insides, Duggan filled it with a dozen books he wasn’t planning to reread–including a biography of Frank Zappa (“I have the autobiography and it’s a lot better”) and Said Hyder Akbar’s Back to Afghanistan–and donations from friends. “I mean, I didn’t want to fill it with trash,” he says. He put the box back on the sidewalk just after July 4, and during the first few days, books only went out. But by the week’s end, he says, “it was full of new books. Now, every couple of days I’ll check it and there’s a good stock.”
Among the 20-odd titles in the box about a week ago were plays by Euripides, a well-reviewed recent history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and a copy of Iola Leary, a classic novel of post-Civil War African-American life. The next day brought Ian Buruma’s erudite essay collection The Missionary and the Libertine, the next day a doorstop about Microsoft’s Project 98 software. Duggan’s found a book of Zen poetry, a book of Merle Haggard guitar tabs, and a copy of Arthur Yorinks’s The Flying Latke. All he does now is look inside. “It’s totally autonomous,” he says.
Duggan has a degree in advertising, but as the Community Book Exchange suggests, he isn’t interested in commercial work. Last year he actually removed advertisements from el cars, screened images on the back, and reinstalled them. “I did a series on lesser-known presidents,” he says–Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, Zachary Taylor. (His street work, including the book box, is signed with the letters ARD–not quite his initials, not quite art, not quite ad.) After that, also on the el, he put up reverent memorial posters for every astronaut killed in space: each has a photo, a name, and a date of death, all under the rubric “Our Fallen Spacemen.” (Jim Vendiola’s short on his “Spacemen” series will show later this month at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.) “I’m really interested in people who are amazing but totally get forgotten,” Duggan says. In that vein, he’s now designing posters devoted to individuals whose names are well-known in Chicago but whose histories aren’t, like General John A. Logan, a Civil War hero and the founder of Memorial Day, or Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist. He’ll wheat paste the massive stencils–four feet tall and two feet wide–onto boarded-up buildings. “I’m not really into destroying any property,” he says.
That brings him back to the problem of how to house any new branches of the Community Book Exchange. “I definitely would like to expand into other neighborhoods–that’s why I painted ‘Logan Square Branch’ on the side of it,” he says–but the perfect structures are newspaper boxes, which are weatherproof and sturdy. “Hopefully, I’ll find one that’s been neglected–and not necessarily Reader boxes,” he adds quickly.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.