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Book lovers give away 100,000 books during COVID pandemic in Pinellas County

Kristine Dowhan was bored at home during her COVID quarantine. She decided to leave free books on her front curb, never expecting it would spark a reading revolution

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Not even an afternoon drizzle could dampen Kristine Dowhan’s eagerness to grab a can of spray paint and get to work. The Snell Isle resident dodged raindrops on Monday and began adding some colorful flair to her latest batch of book boxes.

“This all started because I was bored in quarantine,” she said.

A coat of blue quickly covered an old, unused newspaper bin no longer needed by the Tampa Bay Times. It was one of 14 Dowhan planned to paint on Monday. Another 70 or so sat in waiting on her driveway.

Credit: Kristine Dowhan/St. Pete Shush

She’s been doing this a lot the past nine months.

“The fact that I’ve had a project to focus on has been huge. It’s been critical for my sanity.”

In May 2020, Dowhan told her new husband she wanted to set a china hutch on the front curb and fill it with books. The self-described book lover had a surplus to get rid of and figured giving them away for free may bring someone a smile during the COVID pandemic.

She was right.

“This has just been so humbling for me to see how big of an impact we can have,” said Dowhan, looking out over the dozens of soon-to-be-placed makeshift libraries still needing cleaning and paint. “I’ve always liked to read.”

So, too, does the community, apparently. After a few weeks, weather took its toll on the hutch. Dowhan replaced it with a phone booth she found on Craigslist and added a more formal-looking “Little Free Library” box to the curb. She filled it with books and they emptied out quickly.

Credit: Kristine Dowhan/St. Pete Shush

After 61 years in its St. Pete location, the Times closed its plant in 2021. That meant the newspaper boxes were destined for the dump. Dowhan, instead, took them off the paper’s hands. She painted them, registered them as official Little Free Libraries, filled them with books and recruited ‘stewards’ to host them in their yards. All of them went out on July 5.

It wasn’t hard to locate takers.

“I teach college literature and I am well aware of the power of reading,” said Maggie Romigh, who stopped by Dowhan’s home Monday to drop off some books. “To be able to walk by and get free books, especially for children, opens their horizons.”

Dowhan’s movement caught so much attention she started the St. Pete Shush webpage. A shush is the collective noun for a group of librarians. The name just fit, she says.

The project stretches from Downtown St. Petersburg, near Romigh’s home, all the way to Palm Harbor. Dowhan currently has placed 185 boxes in 165 locations. After the bins in her driveway are established, her total number of COVID-inspired libraries will reach 267.

Credit: Kristine Dowhan/St. Pete Shush

“So, I estimate by now that we’ve spread out at least 100,000 books of which 6,000 are new,” she said. “I thought it would be a possible struggle to place the two extra boxes we were putting in our own library. I never pictured this. I would never have guessed that so many people would be passionate about this project.”

All the books are donated. Dowhan has set up relationships with a few publishers as well and distributes surplus copies of popular literature. Her next goal is to find some local contractors to establish more locations for libraries.

Credit: Kristine Dowhan/St. Pete Shush

Dowhan spends 40 to 50 hours per week painting, filling, and organizing the boxes now. It’s only possible because she’s been able to work from home for nearly a year due to the pandemic. Painting a bin only takes only five minutes each, which is a good thing since she still has so many to go. She doesn’t mind, however. Not when the payoff has been so fruitful.

“It’s very exciting,” Dowhan said with a smile. “It’s just made a huge difference in the lives of so many.”

Check out all the locations of Dowhan’s Little Free Libraries on the St. Pete Shush Facebook page. Donations are collected at GoFundMe.

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