Small free library outside Gralehaus dedicated to German culture

Just outside one of Louisville’s most beloved Highlands restaurants stands a smaller version of itself no bigger than a dollhouse.

Through a set of green columns and a black front door, you can enjoy breakfast at the Gralehaus.

By the other? Tucked between stacks of German novels, comics, dictionaries and textbooks, you might find a German language cookbook written to make a köstlich (delicious) meal of your choice.

For nearly two years, the Louisville German Little Free Library at 1001 Baxter Ave. ran quietly outside the cafe. Small free libraries have become popular over the past decade as a place where people can take books for themselves and share others to read.

The first thing I noticed inside the library on Tuesday when I met the library manager, Bridget Klein, was a pile of Christmas CDs with traditional German carols. Next, Klein searched for “Worterbuch der Technik”, which appeared to be a German-Spanish dictionary. There were some Sue Grafton mysteries published in German as well as physics and chemistry textbooks. If I could read German, I would have my choice of several different genres.

There are more than 150,000 libraries in 110 countries, according to littlefreelibrary.org. This one in the Highlands, however, has a unique mission to share books specifically written in the German language or that educate people about German culture and Germanic countries.

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Klein started this cultural gem in November 2020 with a collection of German books from a friend who was moving. She used a Facebook page to spread the word, and suddenly the donations started piling up.

There’s no way to tell for sure who takes the books from the library. Klein told me candidly that she often wished she had a camera attached to the box so she could watch people browse the two small shelves filled with books.

German textbooks and books on how to speak German are quickly disappearing, she said. German children’s books rarely last long on the shelves, and cookbooks, magazines, sheet music, and even comics usually only last a few days.

It is not a surprise. Louisville’s German history is well recognized and celebrated in our community. Before our conversation, Klein sent me a report published in Business Insider in 2017 which said that at the time German was the most spoken language in Kentucky homes, aside from Spanish or English. .

Germantown and Schnitzelburg are named after the immigrants who settled there in the mid-19th century, and even today, Louisville maintains a sister city relationship with Mainz, Germany. The German American Club of Louisville is also a vibrant community that welcomes everyone, regardless of heritage, every few weeks for beer gardens with authentic German food and dancing.

Klein has German blood that runs through both sides of her family and she had spent almost six years living in Germany in her twenties. During her career as an educator, she taught English to German speakers abroad, and when she returned home, she taught German in private schools in Louisville. Over the years, she has both participated in and led interest groups for people who speak the German language. She also operates a home-baking business, Bridget’s Bakehaus, which offers springerle and lebkuchenherzwhich are traditional German sweets.

Bridget Klein stands next to the Little German Library, across from Gralehaus on Baxter Avenue in Louisville.  The library only has books in German or that have been written about German culture.  August 9, 2022

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Even if she doesn’t keep a catalog, she can measure the library’s success by how often she has to restock it. Sometimes she replenishes the entire collection within a week.

I wondered how she found so many books in German, but she says it wasn’t hard at all.

When she hosted the inauguration, three different people showed up with boxes of German books to use in the library. The Louisville Free Public Library sold him several boxes of German books for just $20 at its annual book sale, and the German American Club of Louisville also gave him nine boxes of books. Complete strangers from at least five different states found her on social media and donated to her cause. Sometimes people she knows in local German-speaking groups also add to the library from their personal collections.

Over the past two years, donations have been so plentiful that sometimes books have invaded her living room. At one point, she loaded her car with books simply because she had nowhere to put them.

The library was relatively full when we opened it on Tuesday. I counted over 50 items on his shelf, and as I did, my eyes caught a book titled “Ein Akt Der Libre” on the shelf.

I smiled. I was sure it was a phrase my own grandmother used to say, so I asked Klein what it meant.

“An act of love,” she told me.

I laughed. It couldn’t be true. Based on when I had heard it in my family, I always thought it was a dirty word. We discussed it for a minute, then later that afternoon she emailed me explaining my confusion.

The saying I was probably thinking of was “Ach, du lieber”, she wrote to me.

These words, she explained, literally mean “Oh, my dear” and can be followed by a number of curse-like expressions, such as “Ach, du lieber Gott!” (Oh my God!).

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And while that clarification also made me laugh, what I took away from her email is what she told me at the end.

The little library, her bakery business, and everything she’s done to educate Louisville about German culture are all about bonding.

“Stories like this, where you learn something about your past and we make a connection through the German language or culture, this that’s what I love”, she wrote to me. “When people tell me how their grandmother used to do springerle and maybe they still have the rolling pin or the molds, this is what I like. Some people get a shiver of delight from distant childhood memories when they taste an anise scent. springerle and some people even cry. It’s such a special connection to their past.”

Columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, southern Indiana, and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and sometimes a little weird. If you have something in your family, your city, or even your closet that fits this description, she wants to hear from you. Say hello to [email protected] or 502-582-4053.