Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wright's Final Hours

Back in 1997, when my book The Reluctant Metropolis was published, I arranged to do a book reading and signing at the Ventura Bookstore on Main Street downtown. We did the book reading upstairs in the Odd Fellows Hall and then sold the books downstairs in the cozy confines of the bookstore itself. I loved that bookstore. It had been around for decades, and for most of that time it was about the only place you could go in Ventura to purchase a brand-new, just-published book. The shelves and aisles were crowded, and the selection of books was somehow simultaneously quirky and very solid, just like the owner, Ed Elrod – a local guy who knew everybody in town.

The Ventura Bookstore is long gone now. (The space is now occupied by Heart’s Delight Clothiers.) It closed down soon after Barnes & Noble opened up out on Telephone Road. Ed Elrod joined other independent booksellers around the country in suing Barnes & Noble and Borders for driving small bookstores like Ventura Bookstore out of business – a lawsuit they predictably elost. Few people remember the Ventura Bookstore today, but I do. I still miss it. Barnes & Noble is great – it has way more books and a much better atmosphere, which in a way is better for Ventura, and it is teeming with people 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. But somehow it doesn’t replace the Ventura Bookstore or the wonderful feeling of having a great bookstore right on Main Street downtown.

I got to thinking about the Ventura Bookstore tonight when I joined a group of about 40 or so people at Wright Library to grieve over the library’s closing. It was a very sad moment, because Wright is justly recognized as a great neighborhood institution for the people who live near Ventura College and all the students who go to school near there. (Half of the students in Ventura Unified go to school within a mile of Wright.) No matter what libraries evolve into in the future in Ventura, nothing will ever fill Wright’s place.

For the last hour or two before the 8 p.m. closing, folks milled around, talking and checking out books. Some were library advocates who have come to accept the loss of Wright; others were angry patrons who wanted to participate in a night-long vigil. After closing time, Library Director Jackie Griffin said the staff had to go home and asked people to leave. Many of the lights were turned off. Some people left, and a group of perhaps 20 remained. They began to chant, “Keep Wright Open,” and continued to do so for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Then Debbie Giles, one of our most wonderful longtime community activists, asked the folks if they would like to speak their thoughts or ask questions.

For the next two hours, Jackie Griffin and I talked with these folks, answering questions and engaging in a dialogue with them. Little by little the crowd thinned out, but 10 or 15 people stayed till well past 10 o’clock to talk. Sometimes people yelled at me; once or twice I lost my cool and yelled back. Many people made it extremely clear that they don’t trust the City Council and a few clearly believe that somehow or other money has been mismanaged or Wright has been cheated by the county system. I don’t believe these things but I understand they are part of grieving a loss.

As time went on, however, we talked more and more about different ways that we might be able to raise enough money to maintain our current level of library service; or other ideas dealing with Wright or and our library system in town. Over time, this became, for me, a truly remarkable experience. It’s exactly the kind of conversation we on the City Council should have with our constituents every day – close up, emotional, intense, one-on-one. It was exhausting, but wonderful. It’s the kind of “town hall” discussion I believe we on the council must engage in more often.

The bottom line, of course, was that everybody in the room wanted me to tell them I would find a way to keep the library open. And, of course, I was unable to make them happy. During the course of the evening, three ideas emerged.

First, to use some of the $500,000 or so in funds set aside for a new library to operate Wright in the next year or two.

Second, to alternate days at Wright and Foster indefinitely.

Third, to “mothball” Wright rather than dismantle it and put a parcel tax exclusively for libraries on the ballot in June.

The first two ideas are clearly the most serious ideas to consider if the goal is to keep Wright open at any cost. As to the first one, the council’s policy throughout this financial crisis has been not to use “one-time” money for operating purposes. I believe that’s simply trading tomorrow for today, and it doesn’t solve the problem of not having a financially sustainable library program in the city (No one – not even the two council members who voted against my motion last week – proposed this solution publicly at our meeting.) As to the second, I never liked the idea and I believe that Jackie is right when she says that it may be okay temporarily but it’s not operationally sustainable in the long run.

As to mothballing Wright and running a parcel tax, I’m certainly open to the idea. But it would require a lot of work on the part of a lot of people and I don’t think it would pass. Nevertheless, I look forward to talking with library advocates and patrons about the idea in the weeks ahead.

But I think there is far, far more to the future of libraries in this town than wrestling with the Wright question. Last week at the City Council, the motion I made – and passed by the council – contained several pieces to it. All are important to bear in mind as we move forward. They include the following:

-- To accelerate our existing process of long-term strategic planning for library service in the city. Our library strategic planning task force faces one major decision that has an enormous ripple effect: Should we focus on one large central library, as Camarillo has, or many small libraries serving individual neighborhoods? I believe that if we choose the latter, we will probably – for cost reasons – have to consolidate our libraries with other neighborhood-level services (parks, rec programs, senior and youth programs), which means we’ll have to reinvent the libraries themselves so they can be smaller and still effective.

-- Explore with the library agency unconventional ways to bring library service to East Ventura. This may mean a bookmobile, but it may also mean promoting online alternatives and very localized library systems – for example, ordering a book online through the library agency and then “checking it out” at a kiosk in your neighborhood. Technologically, we’re totally capable of this now.

-- Work with Ventura College on providing library services through the college as well. This could mean things like, publicizing those services the college library does provide that are of value to the community (for example, certain research materials and computers) and seeing whether any services that were provided at Wright (for example, large-print books for senior citizens) could be provided at the college library.

-- Negotiating with the college for ongoing use of the building. Even if the college does take over the Wright Library building, I think it might be possible for the community to still use it for certain things – meetings and events, for example, or maybe even a homework center after school for all the high school kids who go to school nearby. Or perhaps we could provide a pick up and dropoff spot for books ordered by library patrons on line.

These are just a few ideas. As we work through this transition, there will be many others. Just as an example: I am concerned that the Vivian Distin Garden, named for Johnny Cash’s first wife and Roseann Cash’s mother, a longtime Ventura resident, may not survive on the Wright property. But that’s a community asset too.

Over the next few weeks and months, all of us will grieve in our own way. Since it first became apparent that Wright is likely to close, I have visited the library many times – often at night or on Sundays, when it is closed, so I can contemplate what it means to me. I remember all the times my mother volunteered there – and even the July 4th when the librarians let Mom and me join them in their own special area on the Wright property to watch the fireworks. I remember taking my daughter, now 19, to the children’s area when she was two or three – and meeting her after school at Wright when she was in high school. And I remember all the times I spent there reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Someday, different libraries – or even different types of libraries – will be available to all of us. But, as with the Ventura Bookstore, nothing will ever take Wright’s place.


  1. MR. Fulton,

    I disagree with alot you had to say yesterday. However, you were the only person from the council who came to speak. Nobody wants to do that and you did. You made an unpopular choice and you face to face with the anger of the citizens who are affected by it. There are 6 other council members whom I cannot say that about. It is definitely to your credit.

    There is a combination of factors closing this library, some of which are out of your hands. The state grabbing local funds is a scandle whos impact, I believe, has not resonated with public at large. You are right in the fact that they will do this again. Why stop stealing when its so easy to make the local politicians take the fall? I believe in your comments to the effect "You didnt trust me with the Measure A funds (it failed) yet you trust me to find the money to keep the library open?". The measure A should have passed in a more trusting environment. It should have passed and I will be boycotting business that endorsed "No on A" (see the Ventura County Taxpayers Association for a list).

    I do stand by my point that the libraries are going to be the first in many institutions that go down. The economic situation, I believe, Is much worse than most people think. So if we do not know how to save a good library in a good location then we will definitely lose bigger and more important institutions in the future. If we can learn to save this library, even in a non-perfect form, then we have built up the skills as a community to tackle the other problems coming down the pike. So far we all have failed.
    You talked about drawing lines in the sand for library services and falling back to appropriate library services. IF you keep drawing your lines in the sand behind your front ranks (us, the community)then your ranks will break and you loose cohesion. Draw a firm line in the sand ahead of your troops and we will fight like heck until we win. If you are brave enough to stand up to us then you are brave enough to lead us.

  2. Since Measure A failed, I can't fault Council's fiscal decision to close Wright. Elections have consequences. But I take a jaundiced view of this City's committment to long-term library planning. The City has allowed library planning and funding to languish in the past. Why should I believe it will be any different now during the worst recession in generations? And why is it that you are only now-on the eve of Wright's closure, having that "exhausting but wonderful...townhall meeting" exchange of ideas on library funding? Those ideas have been out there. But for whatever reason the only option The City and Library Director consistently backed was permanent closure of Wright.
    I know of no other civic institution in this City as beloved as Wright Library. The Council missed a real "local hero" opportunity when they chose to permanently close Wright. Closing Wright is a convenient fiscal solution for the County. But I wish my City could show some imagination and figure out how to keep Wright, a civic icon, open in the short term until a long term library plan is hammered out.

  3. Cogent comments however......
    Are libraries more important than healthcare?

    Are libraries more important than paved streets?

    Are libraries more important than a safe city?

    unless you are financially well off (the city is not), you have to make choices. We have ONE good library and two would be a blessing but critical decisions are not painless.

    Eventually, Elrod and libraries will have suffered the same fate. So called "progress".

  4. Mr. Fulton: It's a 'sign of the times', the closing of Wright. I believe the Internet has something to do with this long term, as about everything is now obtainable on the Internet.

    A 'New Tax' is also a sign of the times. If this City doesn't stop funding the Police & Fireman's outrageous pension obligations (90% of income upon retirement), you are going to see more and more cuts, etc.

    All tax paying and property tax paying citizens will be working to pay a very few amount of people over the next 20-30 years. Your and My City will be Bankrupt in five years if this doesn't stop.

    We need tax cuts now, both Federal and State, or we will all be socialized and broke.

  5. Please don't ask voters to choose between a regressive sales tax to fund an invaluable community library. The sales tax falls most heavily upon the poorest in our comnmunity. What kind of people would ask the poorest in our midst to pay the heaviest tax?? I believe we, as a community of thoughtful and concerned citizens, need to find fair ways to provide services. Let us begin that conversation. Joyce Faber

  6. Mr. Fulton,

    I admire you for taking the time and effort to go to the library vigil. Although I was not present, I know that it must have been a difficult decision for you to make.

    Having said that, there are a few comments I would like to make on this entry.

    You said that your opinion toward the first two options that were presented to you was that it was simply "trading tomorrow for today", and that if wouldn't slove the financial problems of keeping Wright open.

    But those options could also be precieved as buying time for Wrgiht, until a more permanent solution can be found. Tomorrow is not set in stone, and circumstances do change unpredictably. I cannot agree that saving Wright in the short term is not a good idea. To me, it seems like an excuse to put it behind us without trying to buy time and see what the future will bring.

    Your analogy of the Ventura Bookstore was touching, but it was about private business. This is a county issue, and the public has a say as voters. I can't help but feel that our voices were ignored in favor of a quick fix to our financial problems. To reiterate, bought time can give us the chance to find other solutions.

    Wynsum Kearns

  7. Joyce, you're right. A sales tax is a regressive tax. But one of the things about being in local government is you find your options are limited more than you might think. Most tax revenue comes from income tax, property tax, or sales tax. We at the local level aren't permitted in California to levy an income tax. Under Prop. 13, we're not permitted to increase property taxes (which are levied based on property value) except with a two-thirds vote for certain bonds. There are a few other possible tax sources, such as hotel bed tax, but these don't raise that much money. Parcel taxes are used fairly frequently, but they're regressive too in a way -- you can own a vacant lot or Pacific View Mall and you pay the same amount. So we're stuck with the sales tax, which the state has sort of encouraged the locals to use.


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