Bound by books, desire

Library: When its branch closed, Charles Village refused the final chapter. Tomorrow, it turns the page to a happy ending, and new center.

May 05, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The sprightly parade of children passed library books to one another out on St. Paul Street into the brick Victorian library.

More than a century after philanthropist Enoch Pratt endowed the building in 1896, the "book brigade" took place to prepare the renovated gingerbread-house building for a purpose befitting its noble beginnings: the official opening tomorrow of the Village Learning Place, a reconfiguration offering free Internet access, an after-school playroom, a self-help section and a coffee bar.

Watching the parade, Viola Berry, 88, beamed as her great-granddaughter Miona Taylor, 6, took part, hoping to see a Winnie-the-Pooh book pass her way. "We were wishing for stuff," said Miona, a first-grader at nearby Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary School, one of four schools within walking distance of the 6,000-square-foot library building.

The scene provided a stark contrast to the uproar that erupted in Charles Village in the late summer of 1997, when the Enoch Pratt Free Library suddenly closed a branch the community was determined to keep open.

Street protests and a legal challenge failed, but the closure became a catalyst for a concerted two-year campaign to lease the city-owned building and reopen the library in a more modern guise.

No single Charles Village activist took credit for leading the cause, but each praised others for their "sweat equity" in scrubbing tile and scraping paint, along with applying for government and foundation grants. Libby Pennacchia planted pansies, a much-noticed small act on the 2500 block of St. Paul St.

"We want to serve as a model for other communities with abandoned city-owned buildings," said Jennifer Feit, 29-year-old executive director of the nonprofit Village Learning Place, pausing to admire new wooden shelves soon to be filled with 143 magazines and an adult collection of about 1,000 new books. "I like working toward something people think is unattainable," she said.

Feit said the largest source of money raised was from the state, including a $156,000 bond bill. The Abell and Goldseker foundations also made substantial five-figure grants. The Pratt library donated staff time and advice from Ann Smith, the Northeast District supervisor. In all, it took half a million dollars to reach this point, Feit estimated.

In the main yellow room, Odette Ramos, a Village Learning Place board member, said she was amazed by the awakened grandeur. "I was just floored. I couldn't believe it, knowing what we've been through to get here," she said.

The yellow and terra-cotta shades chosen by Matt Mosca, a volunteer, are characteristic of the late Victorian era, Feit said.

The purpose was to make every square foot of the privately run building constructive or educational, she said. The coffee bar will be run "not by Starbucks or Donna's," but by middle school pupils in a small business program for youth.

Cheyenne Cooper, 13, and Callette Cummings, 12, two of the young entrepreneurs, said they intended to "make a hangout for people." It will look out on to the garden to be planted outside, to be named for Enoch Pratt.

Children who did not know of the struggle to save the building still saw the difference between the past and present. Said 11-year-old Brittany Smith, "The shelves were crooked and the paint peeled off. This place is really changed. It makes me happy to come to a beautiful library."

Meanwhile, the books flowed in as the Wednesday parade went on.

Paperback biographies of Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, Pocahontas, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cal Ripken Jr. changed hands until they reached the end of the chain. On the front steps, librarian Maxine Tucker said she chose the collection of 5,000 children's books looking for "something for everybody."

"Just seeing the titles pass by is good," said Tamara Powell, a teacher at next-door Margaret Brent Elementary School. Participating gives the children a sense of ownership, she said.

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