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Artist turns a 110-year-old tree into a free library for her neighborhood

Rather than fully chop down the dying tree in front of her house, this Idaho artist came up with a plan to give it a new purpose.

Artist turns a 110-year-old tree into a free library for her neighborhood

Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 18, 2019. It has since been updated.

Sharalee Armitage Howard was quite devastated when she realized she had to cut down the 110-year-old cottonwood tree in front of her Idaho home. For over a decade she'd watched in dismay as the tree dropped dead branches on her flower gardens and sidewalk but there was something about the majestic tree that made it hard to part with it. However, when the dying tree dropped a large branch onto her son's car and racked up a substantial amount in damages, Howard knew she had to take it down before it toppled over in a storm. But rather than completely erase such a defining trait of their home, she came up with a plan to give the tree a new purpose.


Speaking to Atlas Obscura, Howard said, "I thought: What if I kept the trunk part of it? What if we make it into one of those Little Free Libraries? Immediately I could envision the little steps going up to it. I knew I'd do a lot of features to make it match the house. You just have these 'what if' moments and then your brain starts figuring out how to make it work." According to The Washington Post, the Little Free Library movement which was founded in 2009 by the late Todd H. Bol, aims to promote literacy and community with one common principle: "Take a book, return a book." 


With a Pinterest-worthy Little Free Library design in mind, in October 2018, Howard—an artist/book lover who works at her local library in Coeur d'Alene—and her husband, Jamie Howard, paid about $5,000 for a tree removal company to slowly take down the cottonwood tree. It took them over two days to bring the magnificent tree down, cutting off one section at a time. "I really hated to get rid of that tree — it had such curb appeal. But the core had been rotting for years. When it came time to hollow out the stump for my library, all we had to do was reach in and pull out the soft insides," she said.


As painful as it was to watch the tree come down and hauled away in pieces, envisioning the new purpose of the tree stump helped Howard through the process. She sketched out a few different designs for the Little Free Library and finally settled on a peaked roof-little house design. Once the inside of the tree was hollowed out, Howard added some bookshelves inside it and installed stone steps leading up to the cozy library.


She also ordered an antique glass window for the door on eBay and had her neighbor install a light inside it. Howard's kids helped her make some small wooden books to use as molding with the row of ornamental books including the likes of Call of the Wild, Nancy Drew, The Grapes of Wrath, Hush Little Alien, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson. The final product was so magnificent that when Howard posted a photo of her creation on Facebook in December last year, it quickly went viral across social media platforms.


"I'm shocked at how many people I've heard from these past several months. It's really caught on, maybe because it crosses over into a lot of different passions: nature, books, libraries, and people who just appreciate community projects," said the 42-year-old mother-of-four. Howard's Little Free Library now has hundreds of regular book visitors and a steady turnover of titles. The family hasn't had to stock the shelves with volumes of their own since the library first opened its door in December. "It's interesting to see what kind of books people add to the shelves. I love that even the most obscure titles end up in somebody's hands," said Howard.


Speaking of Howard's unique creation, Margret Aldrich, a spokeswoman for the Little Free Library nonprofit organization, revealed that while she'd seen many interesting libraries over the years, the tree library raised the "wow" factor. "We love every detail of it, from the inviting green door to the warm lighting inside and out. Sharalee has created a truly magical experience that will inspire readers of all ages. She went above and beyond with her not-so-little cottonwood tree library," she said.


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