Last summer, when Tim Bayer's neighborhood library in Gardenville was only open three days a week because of money problems, the fifth-grader put on a backyard carnival that raised $42.
Afterward, Tim wondered what to do with the cash.
He decided to give it to branch No. 26 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 5427 Belair Road, a few blocks from his Antanna Avenue home.
Last week, with his bike chained to the railing outside the Northeast Baltimore library, Tim sat in the children's department and explained his decision.
"I didn't care what they did with the money. I just wanted it to stay open," said Tim, who is at the library three to four times a week to "read anything I haven't read yet."
Tim is one of 938,992 people who used Baltimore's 28 neighborhood libraries last year. Many of them want the branches to stay open no matter how bad the city budget gets.
With Baltimore's declining population and stagnant tax base, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said that a sprawling system of neighborhood libraries built in more prosperous times may be "passe," a luxury beyond the Baltimore of 1993.
Branch librarians and their small, overworked staffs are eager for relief: Give us the money we need to do the job right, they say, or merge libraries.
"I've never seen a city that loves the library as much as Baltimore," says Nancy H. Pettus, Gardenville's branch manager who grew up in Tennessee. "But Pratt tries to be all things to all people, and we're not doing anything particularly well."
Twice since 1987, Pratt has tried to close branches only to back off after protests from a public that would rather maintain a crippled neighborhood library than lose it.
The fate of a branch like Gardenville, used by about 22,000 people a year but almost shut down in 1991 because of low circulation and its proximity to two other Pratt libraries, is at the center of the debate.
"The city just looks at the numbers," says Mary Clare Simon, a leader in the Friends of the Gardenville Library group. "If it comes time to close branches again, they'll look at circulation, but they won't look at what a library really means to a community."
What a library means to people like Tim Bayer and his neighbors is evident during a day of business at branch No. 26.
From the moment assistant Anne Manning flips the red sign in the front window to OPEN at 10 a.m. until she turns it back to CLOSED at 5 p.m., a visit to the Gardenville branch offers a view of city life missing from a financial analyst's balance sheet.
"I like to read good books. I've got a bookcase full of my own at home, but now books are getting so high I can't afford 'em like I used to," says Leonard Dunsmore, a 73-year-old retired trucker outside the front door last Wednesday, a few minutes before 10 a.m.
"I watch the paper for best sellers. If I like a best seller, I'll read everything that author's written," he says, four sheets of old bowling schedules in his hand marked up with book titles and authors.
When the front door is unlocked, Mr. Dunsmore is the first one inside, pointing to a long shelf tight with titles by Andrew Greeley.
"I read 'em all," says Mr. Dunsmore, who walks to the library from his Asbury Avenue home and keeps the branch's box of free grocery store coupons up to date. "Once in a while I drive to the county library in Rosedale, they have a lot more money than the city, but this is closer to home, and I know everybody here."
Story begins in 1924
The history of the Gardenville library, and the community that grew up around it, are easily found in the library's archives.
In 1924, the Belair Road Business Men's Association bought a vacant lot at the corner of Belair Road and LaSalle Avenue and deeded it to the city to build a library in a community not long removed from farmland. The city appropriated $45,000; Thomas G. Macken designed a building in the style of an old redbrick schoolhouse; and Henry L. Maas & Son built a house of books for Gardenville that opened with 3,000 volumes in 1926. The branch now has more than 30,000 books, all out on the shelves.
The branch is almost equidistant from one in Herring Run to the east and another in Hamilton about 2.5 miles west along Harford Road. Although Hamilton is a near-replica of Gardenville, a Gardenville resident who doesn't drive would have to take two buses and spend more than a half-hour to get to its library.
From December 1991 until July 1992, Gardenville was open three days a week. Since Monday-through-Friday service returned in July, No. 26 has circulated about 35,000 titles.
Needs grow, budgets shrink
It costs the Pratt $175,000 a year to operate Gardenville, including salaries for four staffers. Ms. Pettus said she was promised $20,000 for new books last year, but only received $16,000. She hopes to spend $20,000 this coming year, when the Pratt budget is expected to rise from this year's $16.6 million to nearly $18 million, not enough for full weekly service citywide.