WASHINGTON – The Little Free Library went up a week after the inauguration, its wooden walls painted to evoke the White House eight blocks away. But if the book box coincided with President Donald Trump taking office, its tiny plaque pined for the previous administration.
“In Honor of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” it said. “Lawyer, writer, and First Lady of the United States.”
For a year, few seemed to notice the dedication. Then the attacks began.
The library’s small glass window was smashed in the spring. Its plaque was ripped off over the summer. And when neighbors replaced the plaque with a photo of the former first lady, that, too, was quickly torn down.
Then, earlier this month, Obama’s name was crossed out and replaced with another.
“Trump’s,” the vandal wrote in black marker.
“Who would do that?” wondered Maureen Dolan-Galaviz, who erected the library outside her home in early 2017. “If there is one thing that should be off limits it’s the idea that we all deserve access to books.”
Once a source of neighborhood unity, the library has – like so much in the United States these days – become a point of tension.
The vandalism has unfolded in Dupont Circle in a city where just 4 percent of voters supported Trump.
Police say they have not received any reports about the incidents. But residents say the attacks on the library, which holds about 20 books free to anyone passing by, have unnerved them. Some consider the vandalism to have been driven by racism toward the family of the first black president to occupy the Oval Office. To others, the culprit is simply deranged.
“I’ve never seen the vandal,” said Debby Hanrahan, 79, as she walked past the dilapidated library one morning earlier this week. “None of us have time to stand guard and protect it.
“We are a neighborhood of writers and readers,” she added. “For somebody to have something out for a little library, I just can’t fathom it.”
Since it began in Wisconsin in 2009, the Little Free Library movement has spread to every state and 88 countries, according to the nonprofit organization. Today, there are more than 75,000 of the book exchanges around the world, including at least 115 in the nation’s capital.
Dolan-Galaviz had wanted to build one long before she moved into the English basement of the redbrick Victorian rowhouse in late 2014. But when the 32-year-old documentary film producer took a job in Texas early last year after more than a decade in the Washington area, she decided it was finally time to act.
She asked her immigrant handyman to build it where the garden met the sidewalk and to paint it like the White House, which she could see from the sidewalk in front of her house.
Dolan-Galaviz had always been an admirer of Obama. But as the first lady’s time in office wound down, the filmmaker fully immersed herself in her subject.
“I started reading more about her and her background in Chicago, and her really humble beginnings,” she said. “I had this deep connection to her.”
Dedicating the library to Obama just as the Trumps were entering the White House was also a subtle act of defiance.
“I think the whole city was reeling from the realization that the Obamas were going to be out,” Dolan-Galaviz said. “This was a way of saying, ‘We are still here.’ It was a little act of, not rebellion, but standing our ground.”
Before they moved, Dolan-Galaviz and her husband filled the library several times with books they’d read.
Soon, other neighbors began adding their own books to the mix, from dog-eared paperbacks to pricey first-edition classics. One day this spring, the selection included “The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook,” “The War on Terrorism” and the dark memoir “Murder by Family.”
More often than not, the titles tilted toward politics.
“Dupont Circle is a very political neighborhood,” said Paul Hazen, who lives a few houses down from the library and would drop off hardcovers on current affairs and watch as they immediately disappeared. One day, the 62-year-old nonprofit executive snagged a book on Afghan cooking.
“I normally wouldn’t buy that,” he said. “But it’s interesting to try the recipes.”
But then the library began attracting more attention for what was written on its outside than what was contained within.
First someone wrote “eyesore” on it, although it wasn’t clear if the word was meant as criticism or merely a tagger’s moniker. Then came the broken window and the missing plaque.
With Dolan-Galaviz in Texas, it fell to others to repair the damage.
One neighbor swept out the glass and painted over the graffiti. Another covered the library in patriotic decorations for Election Day, including a smiling portrait of Michelle Obama above an American flag.
But the vandal – or vandals – struck again, tearing it all down.
“Help restore the book exchange,” someone wrote on the broken window.
So someone did, replacing the window with a new one. “Michelle Robinson Obama” appeared again in bronze painted lettering.
Yet it was only a few days before a vandal crossed out her name and christened the library for Trump.
A friend in Washington recently told Dolan-Galaviz about the window and plaque, but she wasn’t aware of the “Trump” tag until she was called by a Washington Post reporter.
“Oh my gosh. Who are these monsters?” she said. She wondered if “this was some kind of partisan thing, or hate for Michelle… . What if this is a racist thing?”
Vandalism against the libraries is rare, according to Margret Aldrich, who works for the nonprofit. In a survey of Little Free Library stewards earlier this year, only 6 percent reported a significant case of vandalism, she said. But those few cases cut deep.
“When stewards call us, they say it really feels like a personal attack,” said Aldrich, who has also written a book about the little library movement. “What Little Free Libraries stand for is community and coming together, so it is disheartening to see something happen to a Little Free Library in a neighborhood. But it’s also incredibly heartening to see the outpouring of support that comes after an incident.”
Aldrich hoped the former first lady might rally support for the little library, which is located roughly a mile from her house in Kalorama.
“She has a new book out,” Aldrich added. “Maybe she’ll donate one.”
As she walked past the library with a bag of Christmas cactuses for her grandkids, Hanrahan hoped authorities would put an end to the vandalism.
“The funny thing is that there is a camera right there,” she said, pointing to a District police camera a few feet from the book box but aimed in a different direction. “I want to turn it around.”
As for the “Trump” tag atop the library, Hanrahan wasn’t worried that the new name would stick.
“Good luck with that,” she said. “He’s not exactly interested in education.”
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