Library serves more than just books

Jan 22, 2014

The 81st Avenue Library is the newest public library in Oakland. It has a sleek, modern exterior - unexpected angles and large green-tinted windows. Inside, it is just as modern - not just in its architecture or amenities, but in the programs it provides for the community.  The 81st Avenue Library hosts unexpected events like “Game Nights,” for teenagers (substituting Play Station 3s for Monopoly), and offers Zumba classes every Saturday. It is also the school library for the two charter schools next door—ACORN Woodland and EnCompass Academy. Plus, it's the only public library in Oakland that can boast a café.

Marcus Hasan is a high school graduate who's  been working at the 81st Ave. Library.  He got the job through Youth Uprising, an Oakland non-profit that provides job training for teenagers.

Every week students from nearby charter schools  use the library for school projects. The Oakland Unified School District gave an empty lot to the city in order to bring a public library into the neighborhood. So it’s no wonder that the cafe at the 81st Avenue Library is a magnet for kids. But, it’s not necessarily working for everyone else.

“I don’t actually make coffee here,” says Hasan.

The nearest place to get coffee is at Starbucks, which is about 3 miles away on the other side of the highway.

Derrick Demay, senior librarian and branch manager of the 81st Avenue Library, says “Well, so we have a cafe in the library. And one of the most desired things that patrons and teachers of the two schools want is coffee.”

But at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, the cafe is empty while the library is full of children just finished with their day of school. Michelle Santamaria, assistant librarian at 81st Avenue, “I don't see too many people. I was thinking, I don't know if there’s a reason, if they got coffee up in there, there would be way more people. Like myself. And it doesn't have to be fancy coffee.”

But an hour later, a few people come into the café—one of them took the bus here with her nephew, others are with their moms, about to pick out books and movies for the weekend. All of them are eating food that’s sold by street vendors from across the street. There are mangos coated in dried chiles  sold in plastic bags, but there are also pork rinds and roasted corn on a stick, slathered in mayo. Small groups of people are buying this food and walking away.

Other than the street vendors, there is not anywhere close by the library to buy a snack.  That’s why the library thought the café was such a good idea. It gives a safe place for children to eat and hang out, once school is over. Still,  Demay thinks the cafe could be doing more.

“It would give the neighboring residents in this community just this wonderful place to come gather,  because there is nothing like that around here,” he says.

In this neighborhood of liquor stores advertised as “markets,” where there may be as  many warehouses as houses, people are looking for a place to relax. So this isn’t even really about the library cafe itself, what they serve, or when they’re open. It’s about this neighborhood, and about how so many people want this 50-square-foot space to do so much.

But maybe the cafe is doing enough. Marcus has a job. The kids have snacks after school, and a safe space to sit. It’s a beginning.