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.