News & Politics

Bookstore Operator Denies Raiding Little Free Libraries for Stock

Accusations of free-book diversion roil Nextdoor users in Alexandria.

Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

A Nextdoor site dedicated to Del Ray in Alexandria has been roiled by allegations that the operator of a nonprofit used bookstore slated to open next week in Alexandria was visiting Little Free Libraries to obtain stock for his shop. “I saw in your earlier post that you stuff books you can’t sell in Little Free Libraries,” a neighborhood resident named Uve Hodgins wrote publicly to the Company of Books’ president, Don Alexander. “You neglected to mention that you also take the good ones out.”

Alexander replied, denying that he’d taken any books with the intention of selling them. “Yes I remember you with your glass of wine nosily interrogating me,” he wrote, calling her “a self-appointed book police.”

Reached by phone, Hodgins says she’s seen Alexander go through her Little Free Library several times, piling books on the roof of the library and then replacing them with books she’s unlikely to have stocked, including a Sudoku book. She has put more than $400 into building and maintaining her Little Free Library, which she fills with books from her book club as well as some by authors from her native Canada, that she’s purchased at full price with the expectation that they’ll be taken for noncommercial purposes.

One one occasion, she says, she asked Alexander if he was looking for a book of a specific genre. Originally, she says, she thought he’s a “nice older guy looking for books to read in the pandemic,” but something felt off and she asked him if he was taking the books to sell them, which he denied.

“I was going to let it slide,” she said noting she does not like conflict, but once she saw Alexander say on Nextdoor that he redistributed books to other Little Free Libraries, she felt she had to speak up. “It’s just that feeling where you put your heart into something, and someone just comes and takes, takes, takes,” she says. She has placed a sign in her Little Free Library telling Alexander it’s off limits to him.

Alexander tells Washingtonian over the phone that he’s aghast at the accusations: “It’s categorically untrue!” Alexander says he visits Little Free Libraries to take books that he skims for his personal edification, then returns them to other Little Free Libraries, and that none of the stock of the Company of Books will derive from his expeditions to Little Free Libraries. He says he’s visited Hodgins’s library only once. In fact, he has a Little Free Library outside his house in Del Ray, though “I certainly would never police who takes books out,” he says. He does drive around the neighborhood placing books that he doesn’t think he can sell in other libraries. “Someone put two and two together and got five,” he says.

Told that Alexander denies taking books to sell, Hodgins tells Washingtonian in an email: “And I’m next in line to the throne of England.”

On Tuesday another Del Ray resident on Nextdoor posted anew, alleging that Alexander was taking books from Little Free Libraries and urging people not to support the Company of Books. The post set off an epic comment thread that included an exhortation by two commenters to leave negative reviews for the store on Facebook, which several people have done.  (“How can you review a store that’s never opened?” Alexander says.) Alexander replied in the thread, stating that he did not intend to sell any books he took from Little Free Libraries and apologizing for the tone he struck in his initial online exchange with Hodgins.

It’s not illegal to sell books from a Little Free Library, though anyone doing so would defy the spirit of the program, which it describes on its website as “fostering neighborhood book exchanges.” In its FAQs, the organization encourages people who believe someone is taking books from their Little Free Library with the intention of selling them them to stamp books or mark their spines with a Sharpie to make them less salable. On its website, it shares the story of a Little Free Library “steward” in the Chicago area who successfully got the police involved with someone who was clearing out his box.

Hodgins has now purchased a stamp online for her books that says “always a gift, never for sale.”

Alexander says he’ll no longer restock other peoples’ Little Free Libraries and that he’s going to delete the Nextdoor app from his phone ” I don’t need this stuff,” he says. “I’ve never been attacked on the internet before. I’m 69 years old; I’m not generally a social media person.” He plans to have some books that people have donated out for sale in front of the future site of his shop in Del Ray this weekend during Alexandria’s sidewalk sale. “I sure hope there’s no stuff that came from Little Free Libraries,” he says of the stock he’ll have out. “If there is, it came from someone else, not me.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.