How Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library beat the odds of COVID
By Lou Fancher
This is the story of how a small but mighty band of “ordinary” citizens, the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library, swam upstream against the tide of a raging pandemic and public safety directives mandating that everyone shelter in place. Importantly, that order included not visiting public libraries.
Susan Weaver had been a Friends volunteer since joining in 2014, shortly after retiring from a 17-year career in the Contra Costa County Library system that included her last post as senior community library manager for the Lafayette Library and Learning Center. She recalls the strife and stress on the Friends board when the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020 as the library was then “going through some reckoning about what to do with its dilapidated 60-year-old building.”
What has occurred since then is remarkable in light of the library’s tumultuous environment and the havoc that COVID wreaked on everyone at the time. Weaver laid out the achievements: the Friends led a successful citywide effort to pass an additional sales tax that would pay for a new library and agreed to raise $1.5 million to furnish and provide equipment for it.
Secondly, in a Herculean effort, the Friends placed all of the library’s inventory — books, CDs, DVDs, puzzles and more — into storage, created a new e-retail website to sell the materials online and had two volunteer members, Robert Goldner and Katherine Bracken, process the 20,000 items onto a database.
“Everything else had stopped, and we didn’t have anything else to do,” said Goldner.
Before retiring in 2002, Goldner held various executive positions with finance and investment companies and with United Press International. He joined Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library in 2012 and began volunteering at the annual book sales held in the parking lot at the library’s former site on Monticello Avenue.
“If you helped do the setup, you got to look at the books first. It was fun for me. Then the guy running it moved out of town and asked me to take it over.”
Goldner said books and reading are the keys to knowledge and have been of primary importance in his life since childhood.
“My parents were divorced and my mother sacrificed for me to go to private school. It was there that the constant exposure to reading made me thirst for knowledge. To this day, I believe knowledge is the best gift we can give to the next generation.”
Weaver said having observed the Lafayette Library’s campaign committee fundraise for that city’s new library was immeasurably informative when it came to Pleasant Hill. She knew a great deal, including knowing enough to hire professional consultants to develop the plan and having grant requests written in 2018 that resulted in an award of $300,000 from the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation.
“We also had a major donor from Pleasant Hill, the current mayor, Michael Harris, who donated $200,000. With that, we launched the public campaign in March of 2020, right when the pandemic hit. I was pleasantly surprised at how generous people were. I think they missed going into our library. We were more than borrowing books. We were programs and a social center.”
With the roaring success of donations and strong sales from the online bookstore, the Friends took another radical leap of faith. With the city’s help, they secured a retail spot on Crescent Drive in downtown Pleasant Hill and opened the county’s first separate brick-and-mortar bookstore of any library support organization.
“We were wildly successful, raising $600,000 in our first two years,” said Weaver.
When the landlord reclaimed the space, they relocated to a nearby location on Contra Costa Boulevard and also opened a second store in the new library. Weaver said the stores continue to be popular.
“People love browsing because they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s discovery, every time. We have every intention of keeping it going. We’re the only bookstore in Pleasant Hill, and the quality of the goods we get allows us to put out the best of the best.”
Goldner said he’s most proud that during the pandemic the Friends opened a successful bookstore.
“Speaking monetarily and about the love from the community, it was enormous,” Goldner said. “We had said going in that we had to make $300 a day to be viable. We did $300,000 the first year we were open. We’re not an ordinary used bookstore. People ask us if the books are new. They see great organization, places to sit and read. We are not row upon row of book spines.”
Money from the sales goes primarily to fund the library: to date, $150,000 to programs and $250,000 for furniture, fixtures and equipment.
“We had about $130,000 for expenses,” Goldner said, “and then another $100,000, which is waiting for (Library Manager) Patrick Remer to spend.”
Weaver said Remer is likely to designate funds for two “dream programs” — the I Heart Art project, which has people bringing in craft materials and working with young people in the morning and middle schoolers in the afternoon twice a month. The second program is expansion of the new Maker’s Space that already houses laser cutters, 3D printers and 12 laptops that communicate with the machines and let people “make anything they want, right there in the library.”
“We have kids who don’t have transportation to the library in the summer,” Weaver added. “We want to work with (Contra Costa bus service) County Connection to make it possible to provide transportation to the kids the staff goes to during the school year so they can come to the library year-round and not have that months-long gap.”
As to libraries in contemporary times, Weaver said offerings such as English as a second language, programs in languages other than English and others for new moms, book clubs, lifelong learning courses, maker spaces and tech centers make today’s libraries intergenerational, accessible and universally welcoming.
“Libraries have become something more than just books and being quiet or you get thrown out,” Goldner added. “It’s the internet, the maker space, a place to transfer knowledge to another generation. Life has moved on, and we get information to people in the ways they will absorb it. That no longer is just books.”