Steinbeck and Salinas
Saving a rebellious writer’s hometown library.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
O n Sunday, Oct. 19, a miracle occurred in Salinas. All three branches of the Salinas Public Library stayed open on a Sunday, for the first time in more than 30 years. And they will continue to be open on Sundays. Why this is a matter of the miraculous rather than mere civic pride is easy to explain. They shouldn’t be open at all.
In 2004, the city of Salinas announced that it would close its libraries because of financial difficulties. When I heard this, like many people around the world, I was shocked.
The closing of any library is disheartening, but the closing of this library struck a powerful chord. The main branch of the library is, after all, the John Steinbeck Library. It was inconceivable that a library named for a writer who valued the written word so intensely and who brought so many readers, young and old, to share his passion for it, should disappear.
But it didn’t close. The international outcry was enormous, and featured the voices of the influential, which certainly helped spur efforts to save the library. But make no mistake about it, it was the people of Salinas who saved it. Under several umbrella organizations– Rally Salinas, Friends of the Salinas Public Library and others– enough funds were raised in the first three months to keep the library open for a year. Then, in November 2005, Salinas voters passed Measure V, authorizing a tax increase that ensured the libraries would remain open.
There were dark days. For a while, the three branches were open only a combined 33 hours a week. But the citizens came to the branches, used them and the librarians and support committees kept battling. Now, some four years later, you can stroll into the library any day of the week and find that one book– or twelve – that you really need. In a world where the public will to foster its most basic community services has by and large failed, it is indeed a miracle that a library was saved.
I was in Salinas on that recent Sunday, invited as a small part of the festivities, which marked the beginning of a yearlong celebration of the library’s centennial. I had come to read from my new book, a novel for younger readers centered on one character’s fight to save the library, and some spooky goings-on in Steinbeck Country. As thrilling as that was for me, it paled in comparison to the true celebration, the living library.
It was a gorgeous Indian summer day, and the statue of Steinbeck greeted us on our way in, always a welcome sight. There were trays of tamales and cookies, vats of lemonade, and everywhere you turned, people reading books and newspapers, surfing the net, using all of the library’s many resources. One of the great pleasures of being in a library is the hush one feels there most often. But that day was all buzz and bustle, and it was a most welcome change.
I also discovered that the library had not merely survived its collapse and increased its hours, but moved well beyond that. The children’s room is now adorned with a fantastic Arthurian mural, in tribute to Steinbeck’s love for the tales of King Arthur. There’s also a new Teen Reading Area that offers more fun than should be reasonably expected. And many other changes, big and small. The citizens of Salinas and its librarians have decided, it seems, that they’re not only going to survive– they’re going to thrive.
What would Steinbeck have made of all this?
For those of us who feel, in some strange way, that we know the man, or at least his spirit, the answer is obvious.
He would have had a lot to say about the way his name has been bandied about in the old home-place. He would undoubtedly love the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but would have a few grand laughs over how silly Cannery Row has become.
And no matter how swell the National Steinbeck Center is, Steinbeck would be abashed at the thought. He’d much prefer we read his books.
He might ask them to take down the statue, but would be thrilled by the library’s miracle, without a doubt, and proud of the city of Salinas. Because it is here that one reader can find one book, and the world might be made better for that simple transaction.
Of the 2,000 people in and out of the library that day, it was one visitor who most compelled me. As we were leaving, I watched a young boy with a skateboard at the check-out desk. There was a certain hunger in his eyes, a certain greed, and yes, a certain wonder. It might have been his first trip to the library. I can take this book with me, for free, he seemed to say.
That is the miracle of this story. For that boy will go home and read that book, and then he will come back to the library and get another one– any day of the week.