Only after starting to take my morning walks there did I learn that the neighborhood was called Sherwood Forest. Trees, including majestic redwoods with wide trunks and romantic, tall palms, dotted the yards of the mostly one-story ranch houses, but an actual forest was nowhere to be found. I’d walked the short streets a number of times before realizing that they were named after characters in the well-known story. There was Marian, Will Scarlet, Little John, and, of course, Robin Hood Lane, and several versions of Sherwood, including Sherwood Avenue and Sherwood Court.
I had lived a block and a half away for over seven years but had never walked the Sherwood Forest streets. Prior to the day I crossed busy Sonoma Avenue and first entered Sherwood Forest on Shortt Road, my walks had taken me east, passing Montgomery Village, a sprawling outdoor mall with restaurants and shops, for which my neighborhood was named. I’d ventured in a different direction this morning, because I was bored. The pandemic had forced the closure of everything, including the gym where I worked out four times a week, making walks one of the few ways I could get exercise.
I noticed the free library box on my earliest Sherwood Forest walks. Yellow with white trim bordering the glass, the box resembled the house, located behind a plant-filled garden. The box and the house sat on the corner of Leonard and Alderbrook. A wooden painted Snoopy from the Peanuts series sat atop the box, reading a book. Snoopy’s best friend, the cute yellow bird, Woodstock, perched next to him.
Along with Charlie Brown, the Peanuts gang appears throughout my Northern California town, as Santa Rosa was home to the late series creator, Charles Schulz. A block from where Sherwood Forest starts, Snoopy sits in front of a dental office. Years ago, when the San Francisco Giants were playing in the world series, someone dressed Snoopy in Giants catcher Buster Posey’s jersey. On several occasions in December, Snoopy’s neck has been wrapped in a warm-looking scarf.
I wasn’t surprised to see the free library box in Sherwood Forest. Wooden boxes holding free books for passersby sit here and there, all around the area. Passing them on my walks, I had often glanced inside. But before strolling the streets of Sherwood Forest, I never walked away with a single volume.
One of my clearest childhood memories is of walking to the town library. I was in the fourth grade, the year my parents, two sisters and I moved from the Island of Oahu to Mt. Holly, a small Southern New Jersey town. An Air Force officer, my father had been transferred that summer to nearby McGuire Air Force Base.
Main Street was my favorite part of town. At one end, downtown started, with shoe and clothing shops, a movie theater that showed Saturday matinees for children, and a soda fountain, where high school kids gathered after school. The other end contained stately, colonial-era homes, with wide green lawns and huge ancient trees shading the sidewalk. This was where the better-off residents lived, including several doctors, the funeral home director, and the owner of the largest car dealership at the edge of town.
I loved walking past the large old houses, pretending I lived in one of them. On autumn afternoons, fallen leaves were raked into piles and set on fire along the curb, the air saturated with the sweet smoky smell.
Before the houses gave way to shops, a tall narrow house sat high above the street, behind a steep set of stairs leading to the door. This was the town library.
Every Saturday, I made the trek to Main Street, shuffling past the lovely old houses, cradling books I’d read the week before in my arms. The door to the library moaned when I pulled it open. Stepping out of the bright sunlight, I paused, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness inside. In place of the sweet smoky air outside, the library exuded a musty odor of old dampness. The librarian sitting at her desk would nod in my direction. She always wore a high-collared, long-sleeve black dress, the sort my grandmother preferred.
From that time on, I read ravenously, especially enjoying biographies of famous people and series, including the exploits of Nancy Drew. Later when we returned to the town and my father left for Vietnam, I passed most weekends holed up in the living room, lost in a thick novel, such as James Michener’s Hawaii.
Along with my gym, our local county library was closed for months, due to Covid. Not only could I not put books on hold, picking up my choices every week or two, next to a card with my last name on it, I also wasn’t able to drop into the once-a-month Friends of the Library sale, where I could discover good used copies of novels, travel books and memoirs. Like every devoted reader, I still had shelves full of unread books. But without a steady stream of new choices, I worried a day might come when I wouldn’t have a single interesting thing to read.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, we were stuck at home. Right from the start, our county public health officer put lockdowns in place, to lessen the transmission of Covid-19 and keep us safe. Books had always served as an escape for me. I needed to mentally leave my present life, now more than ever.
Weeks passed, as I considered the contents of the free library box, which I began to think of as Snoopy’s box. Through the glass, I could read titles for a handful of books, but not all. Wood framing the glass hid offerings on the sides and the top shelf. In order to see those, I would have to pull open one or both doors, something I hadn’t mustered the courage to do yet.
Initially, looking at the books and reading titles along the spines was enough. In the meantime, I ordered books online. I also pulled books off my to-be-read shelf. I even reread a few novels I’d loved, including classics, like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
In addition to Snoopy’s box, I peered into others I passed on my walks. There was a smaller, royal blue box on busy Sherwood Avenue that contained the kind of small supermarket paperbacks I never read. A few blocks up Sherwood, close to where the street dead-ended in a half-circle, a larger, more attractive box contained books on Buddhism and self-help. Some days, I extended my walk a bit, and passed the largest box, with a lovely little matching brown-painted bench in front. This one contained a mix of choices, and I thought one day a book might appear there I would want.
The first time I took a book from Snoopy’s box, I felt like a thief. Before I opened the door on the right, I peered around. Even though lots of other people walked in the morning, I didn’t spy anyone close by.
I found a book I’d heard about but hadn’t read, slid it from the shelf, and closed the door. My breathing came fast and short. Palming the book in my right hand, I held it close, scurrying across the street, hoping the owners of the house hadn’t noticed.
Bit by bit, I grew bolder. And book by book, the collection on my to-be-read shelf increased. Now that I felt more comfortable taking books from Snoopy’s box, I started borrowing from the free library with the little brown bench in front. Not long after, I discovered another box, near the start of my walk, on a short side street. The contents appeared to be texts for a college English major. One morning, I discovered a new translation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I seized before it could get snatched by another literature lover. The copy I had was old, the pages browned and loose. I’d always wanted to read it again.
By the time I found Anna Karenina, some of the local pandemic restrictions had loosened. My gym and the library were now open. But I felt too wary to go to either one. I’d also discovered something surprising. Through the free library boxes, I was reading books I might never have otherwise opened and enjoying them.
Like many readers, I’ve loved certain genres and primarily read those. The variety of books I found in the boxes opened me to a range of writers I’d never known. Since the books were all free, I didn’t feel obligated to finish them. Even so, I have ended up enjoying – and finishing — quite a few.
After taking books for months, it occurred to me that I ought to fill empty spaces in the boxes with ones I no longer wanted. As when I first started taking out books, I felt I was doing something wrong, when sliding books into Snoopy’s box. Instead of crowding my donations together, I spread them out.
I hadn’t expected what came next, though. The following day, I was eager to learn. Had anyone taken my books?
And this became my newest interest. Not only was I curious to see if I might discover a treasure to take home. I wondered if someone I’d never met was sitting in a comfortable chair, enjoying a book I had loved.
I began to see that it might take a day or two. But books I slid into the boxes magically disappeared. Who might have taken each one, I wondered. Maybe we could start a book club, with all the people who passed the novel on, leaving notes in the box for each other.
As I thought about the notes, I recalled a short story I read years ago that influenced my later writing. The story entitled, “Graffiti,” by the late Argentinian writer, Julio Cortázar, was set in a city where freedom had been replaced by fear. What began as a game, in which two people who’d never met communicated through sketches they left on a wall, turned into both a risky protest and a chance at love.
A recent morning brought a surprise. I was walking on Sherwood Avenue and stopped to peer inside the royal blue box. In all these months, I had never found anything of interest there, but kept looking anyway. Close to the front, laid flat, instead of upright like the row behind, was a book I’d left in Snoopy’s box, a week or two before. The book had to have been mine, given that it was written by a South Asian writer based in London, and nearly all the authors I’d seen in the neighborhood were American. Spotting my novel, I realized there was no telling the journeys each volume I left might eventually make. Someone could pack a book I’d donated in a suitcase and read it in her travels, miles and miles away.
Read a Book, the message on the side of the book Snoopy is reading says. I want to ask Snoopy to tell me about the book he is devouring. But I know that will be going too far. Instead, I stand for an extra moment, palming the book I’ve just borrowed, feeling, even in this lonely, isolating time, that we are all connected, our love of words holding us together somehow.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.