From Books to Free Food, the Stillwater Family Builds on a Legacy of Sharing

For over two years now, Tony Bol and his wife Eden Penn have been making wooden crates for people who want to set them up in their backyards to share something: books, food, seeds. Even poetry.

The idea may sound familiar. It was Tony’s late brother, Todd, who built a small library and planted it in his front yard in Hudson, Wisconsin, over a decade ago, creating the Little Free Library movement.

What has happened since then has been one unexpected turn after another, nothing predictable, said Todd’s wife Susan Bol.

“He didn’t expect it to be a big deal at all,” she said.

It’s been three years since Todd died of pancreatic cancer. Idealist and romantic who sees in small wooden crates a solution to the ills of society, Bol makes his first crate using wood from an old garage door. He set it up in his front yard and didn’t think it would become much more than he wanted: a tribute to his mother. Then a neighbor organized a garage sale in 2010, drawing people to the dead end of Bols.

“People were really looking at this library,” laughed Susan. Driven by word of mouth, Bol initially wanted to build 2,150, to beat the number of Carnegie libraries in the United States. The movement has long passed this mark.

Last year, the Hudson, Wisconsin-based nonprofit Little Free Library announced that it had donated its 100,000th library, a box that was donated to the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans in Houston.

Todd started the association and Tony worked there briefly after his brother died. But Tony went it alone to start a box-making company called Share With Others, based in Stillwater, the hometown of The Bols.

A 2019 dispute with the Little Free Library organization means Bol can’t use those three words – Little Free Library – but Bol said the waters have mostly calmed down and thinks his brother would be happy if he and l The original Little Free Library nonprofit should be working to create a world of sharing forecourt.

Bol said he and Penn hired Amish carpenters to build their Share With Others boxes before adding the finishing touches to their downtown Stillwater location at 233 Second St. The boxes are listed for sale on the website. Share With Others and on Etsy. com, with prices ranging from $ 190 to $ 540.

The pandemic fueled the idea of ​​sharing the front yard, Penn said. The company has seen its growth become “exponential”, with some 2,500 boxes sold since the inception of the company. “For people, it’s about the experience and the kindness and thoughtfulness,” Penn said.

Today, what started with books has grown into a lot more, with pantries increasingly popular during the pandemic.

According to the organization Feeding America, some 42 million people in the United States, including 13 million children, could be food insecure in 2021. That’s one in six children in the United States.

New pantries keep appearing. The Greater Saint Paul nonprofit interfaith action has purchased five of the Share with Others boxes to use as free small pantries and expect to install them in the coming weeks. The group’s Indian labor department operates a food shelf serving 900 families and around 2,500 people per year.

“We’re not in a great location; we’re in Summit and Snelling, and our families mostly reside in the eastern subway,” said Kelly Miller, director of the Indian Department of Labor. An upcoming office move to Little Canada won’t help matters, but in a recent brainstorming session, the group’s emergency services coordinator, Theresa Halvorson-Lee, wondered if the boxes might help extend their food storage hours and locations.

A check of municipal permits revealed that as long as they were installed on private property, no additional documents were needed.

Filled with canned food, rice, pasta and other staples, the five Share with Others boxes will soon be placed in the neighborhoods closest to the organization’s community members. The plan at the moment is for Halvorson-Lee to restock them every week.

“We just want to make sure that if there’s an immediate need people can stop by that pantry. We don’t see that as taking away our services or our food shelf,” Miller said.

This is the kind of development that would have made Todd Bol deeply proud, said his wife, Susan.

“He would be delighted if this would move forward and engage more people and these other needs,” she said.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329

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