MARTINEZ -- Jackie Caudle is an enthusiast of Danielle Steele, James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark, reading anything she finds of theirs in large print.

On this particular day, she thumbs through Tina Fey's biography, sharing it with friend, Shirley Lounghrey.

The books are part of a treasure trove of titles in a neighborhood lending library.

The concept for the Free Little Library originated in 2010 in Hudson, Wis., and since the nonprofit's incorporation in 2012, these estimated 15,000 handcrafted boxes have cropped up in 56 countries, including retirement communities, parks, small towns lacking a public library, rural villages and bustling train stations, according the website, which guesstimates that at least 4.5 million books change hands each year.

The boxes are often being built and donated by volunteers and myriad service organizations, all in the spirit of improving literacy and fostering community.

Martinez residents Daniel and Margee Curran's little library is brimming with books with titles for children and adults.

"I keep looking at it," says Pleasant Hill resident Liz Diamond. "The books change, so there's something going on."

Daniel Curran built it as a birthday gift for his avid-reading wife. It is a free-standing, shingled box crafted with "repurposed materials" and a plexiglass door for the curious reader to see the books, and then to reach in to borrow one.

"I call it a community catalyst," he says of the response that the two campus ministers at UC Berkeley have received since the box appeared last August.

The selection is diverse, predicated by books you would lend to a friend, he says, noting his wife's role of monitoring what's being donated to the box's inventory.

"C.S. Lewis gets in there every once in a while," he says.

"It embodies the idea that things should keep circulating," Margee Curran adds. "Everyday books are being left."

The concept of neighbor has also expanded beyond a couple of residential blocks. "We think of neighbors as people we have ongoing, face-to-face interaction and that could be the dog walker 10 blocks away," he says.

In Concord, Tamsie Irvan, owner of two board and care homes, had a box erected just outside of the two facilities that families of residents keep stocked when they come to visit.

Irvan had gotten the idea of a lending library when she saw that her aunt had installed one in her St. Helena neighborhood after learning of the idea while on a European river cruise.

"It enriches the mind, gets them socializing all at the front door," says Kris Brady, who routinely stops by to visit her mother-in-law.

While the concept of encouraging neighbors to participate by donating a book and borrowing one for themselves, so far Irvan's library has "turned into more of a family thing," she says.

"The idea is to spread the word to the community, to know these lending libraries exist and that may open the door for them to come in and interact with the residents," adds Irvan's daughter, Cherie Eubanks.

Nooks and books
For more information, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.