Catherine Connellan pulls open a window, to the left of her door, and leans out to answer the bell.

Connellan is in her 70s. “I’m cocooning, but I’m not just going to sit around and do nothing,” she said, on a recent Saturday, as she adjusted her seat on the window sill inside.

“I want to contribute to the community effort,” she says.

At the end of her driveway, there’s a small table with three boxes. A sign says “Give and Take”.

For nine weeks, Connellan has run a book swap from her home at Kenilworth Square in Rathmines. She has given out 800 books or so in that time, she says.

On display today, Marian Keyes’ red-on-black Sushi for Beginners stands out. There are a few Jackie Collins novels, and a green tome from Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series.

Connellan’s book exchange is one of many popping up around Dublin at the moment – many in Dublin 6.

Stroll down Orwell, Moyne, Oakley and Windsor roads and there are four more. There’s also one in Harold’s Cross Park.

Elsewhere in the city too, in Donnycarney on the northside, Dubliners have put out their books for others to enjoy.

Some are likely to be a short-lived feature of doorsteps and streets in the city, others though have been around for much longer – and are here to stay.

A “Bad” Day

“I have a large number of books and I wanted to dispose of some,” says Connellan. She’s planning to downsize from her home soon.

But with charity shops closed since the beginning of the pandemic, Connellan decided to leave them in a box outside her house and invited people to dip in.

A neighbour took one, then wanted to return the favour, she says. The next day there was a small pile of books on the hood of her car.

“That’s where I got the idea for a book exchange,” she says, adding that she thinks there’s a real need for people to have something to read right now.

It’s raining and stormy out. Connellan’s book bay isn’t in its full glory today.

Usually, she has a separate table for kids’ books, a section for oversized books, and a smattering of CDs, DVDs, jigsaws or crafty stuff. Sometimes, she puts out an ironing board for overflow.

Her neighbour’s children a few doors down left a thank-you note and a drawing of a unicorn. They’re big fans of the kids’ table, she says.

On a “bad day” like this, she says, she has only seen 25 books go out. On good days, it’s hard to keep track of how many are taken.

Three or four people pass by and stop to browse. It’s Josh Behan’s first time at this particular stall, but he’s noticed them springing up around the area.

“I’m not much of a reader,” he says. But he’s trying to get more into it. Little roadside libraries are a great idea, he says.

Photo by Zuzia Whelan

Behan says he’s sceptical that the stalls will be popular, but is visibly impressed when he learns that 25 books gone is a bad day.

He thumbs through the volumes, but nothing catches his eye today.

Stocking Up

A few weeks after setting up, Connellan ran out of books.

The Rathgar Community Group call out for her. Soon, boxes and bags of books were being dropped to her door.

Nearby on Rathgar Avenue, Statia Somers runs her own book exchange. She’s also part of the Rathgar Community Group, helping to gather more stock.

Somers is the principal of Liberties College. She’s given the college more than 600 students books to take or borrow for a long time already.

“Books are kind of my thing”, she says. “I always thought that was kind of essential, for the pleasure of it, for knowing other worlds and other people’s lives.”

She likes the escapism of reading, she says. “It’s essential right now in particular.”

Most of the books come into the college through donations. But Somers is also friends with several local librarians.

“They would call me up when they’ve got withdrawn stock and I go up and I get thousands of books. This has been going on for a few years,” she says.

This year, when the college closed in March, she took some boxes of books home. “I set up a stall and thought I may as well give them out to people,” she says.

Since March, Somers reckons she has given out thousands of books through her stall. Mostly fiction, murder mysteries and romance, she says. Books on rugby and tennis tend to disappear quickly, too.

People will often try and figure out “what the trick is” at first, she says. Then they’ll take a few books, and stop to chat about what they like to read.

The Little Free Library movement

Long before lockdown – and the Covid-19 outbreak – Christian Schaffalitzky had been tending to his own pavement library in Rathgar’s Vernon Grove.

Schaffalitzky is a geologist, and also also an experienced carpenter.

About six years ago, a friend’s Facebook post about a small, free library project piqued his interest.

The Little Free Library Project movement kicked off in the United States. These days, there are more than 90,000 registered members across the globe.

Schaffalitzky joined them. He built his library and stuck it on the wall outside his house.

“Our house is drowning in books,” he says. “We thought this would get rid of them.”

It hasn’t quite worked like that. “Occasionally people will deliver a box of books on our doorstep, so you’re back to square one,” says Schaffalitzky, laughing over the phone.

The little library is a little worn out these days. The small, blue house-like structure had its door ripped off about a year ago. Schaffalitzky is getting around to fixing it. He’ll need to build a new door, rather than reassemble, he says.

The roof is also leaking. That’s “more serious”, he says. The books could be damaged.

With lockdown, the library has become a lot more popular. But he doesn’t keep track of how many books go out per day.

“I used to go to the airport a lot and a couple of taxi drivers started asking me about it. There’s one guy who doesn’t even live near, but if he’s nearby he makes a point of driving by and getting a book,” he says.

Many drive up or walk over just to visit the library so it’s not just people passing by, he says.

Like Connellan and Somers, Schaffalitzky sometimes talks to the library’s frequenters.

One happy customer left him a Toblerone and a thank-you note, saying one particular book – The Power of Four: Leadership Lessons of Crazy Horse, by Joseph M. Marshall III – had changed their life. Another was a US visitor touring all the Little Free Library outposts in Ireland.

Past Their Best

Though the Little Free Library project is long-standing and will be sticking around, many of the pop-up pavement libraries will likely evaporate again once lockdown gradually lifts.

When Liberties College reopens, Somers reckons she will go back to giving the books out at school, she says.

“I like the idea of using the college to encourage people to read, and for people who might not have the money to read it’s important that they get access to books,” she says.

On top of that, she also has a guilty conscience that she’s “taking away from book sellers”. She’s still keen to keep up some kind of community work, though.

On Kenilworth Square, Connellan says sometimes people use her table as a dumping ground for books in bad nick.

She thumbs through a box of yellowing paperbacks, passing over a few aging Barbara Cartland spines.

Others leave a lot of “pseudo-religious” texts.

She put up a sign saying “no religious books”, she says. “If I didn’t remove them, the integrity of the swapping would be gone,” she says, adding that she felt it was opportunism by some proselytising religious groups.

She ducks out of her window, and reappears at the door. From her hallway, she points to more boxes, bags and piles of books.

After nine weeks, she’s noticed that the books she put out in the beginning have started to come back. The same cars pull up. She gets “repeat business”, she says.

Will she keep it going when lockdown starts to lift?

“Oh God no,” she says, laughing. As soon as the charity shops are open, she’ll be dropping her stock off there, she says.

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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