Actor's curbside library is a smash — for most people

Actor Peter Mackenzie's pop-up Tenn-Mann Library has drawn many fans in West L.A.

Peter Cook used to make lots of trips to the Palms Library to donate books, but then he got a better idea. He'd seen little homemade lending libraries in yards here and there and decided to make his own.

"I love working with wood and have a two-dollar theory that most actors have no control over their lives, so we search for things to do that we can control," said Cook, who has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows under his stage name Peter Mackenzie.

"I put in a redwood post and went to a local liquor store and got some wine crates and screwed them into the post, and I wanted them low enough so kids could look at the books," Cook said.

This all happened in November, at the corner of Tennessee and Manning avenues in West L.A. Cook placed his rustic creation on the grass strip between sidewalk and street. He put it alongside a red curb, so no one would park and have trouble opening a car door, and next to a stop sign and utility pole.

Cook painted "The Tenn-Mann Library" on it and he and his wife, Lili Flanders, a writer and teacher of writing, put five books on the shelves with a message advising anybody to "take one or leave one."

"It has been a smash success, the scope of which I could never have imagined," Cook said when he first emailed me. "More times than not, the library is overflowing with books. Neighbors whom I have seen and recognized over the years but never had any real conversation with now stop by to donate, chat and trade news."

He went on:

"I have seen local teenagers gather there on their way home from school and take books. I have seen nannies and housekeepers of neighbors take books on their way to and from work."

You know, of course, where this story is headed. Yes, it's another chapter in the book of "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished."

In mid-January, an anonymous grinch left a note on the library.

"Take it down or the city will," said the writer, claiming that police and City Hall had confirmed that the sign was on public property, and that it was illegal. The note was signed, "a neighbor who hates you and your kids." And if that wasn't hostile and creepy enough, an expletive, "[blank] America," was scrawled on the back of the note.

Cook, whose three "kids" are adults who no longer live there, was rattled. He had no idea who would have left such a screed. And he couldn't imagine which of his neighbors could have done it.

Then, on Jan. 26, an investigator from the city's bureau of street services knocked on Cook's door and handed his wife a "Notice of Violation." He was apologetic, according to Flanders, saying that he didn't personally have an issue with the library, but that a complaint had been filed.

The library constituted an "obstruction," said the investigator (who did not return my call). And the parkway strip between sidewalk and curb is public property. If the owners didn't rip out the library within seven days, the citation said, they'd be subject to unspecified fines and penalties.

The strong-arming seemed all the more ridiculous when I went to see the library. Having written previously about crackdowns on parkway vegetable gardens, I knew the city's argument is that you can't do anything that might block emergency vehicle access, obstruct motorists' views, impede pedestrians or make it hard to open car doors.

But the Tenn-Mann Library, at the intersection of a four-way stop, does none of those things.

And I can't help but point out that a city tree in front of Cook's house, on the parkway strip, has untamed roots that have lifted the sidewalk a few inches, posing a clear and obvious obstruction and tripping hazard. The city pays out millions of dollars in trip-and-fall settlements every year, and last time I checked, tree-trimming was on a 45-year cycle — no joke. But put up a lending library and the city is at your door in a jiffy.

Cook could resolve this if he chose to do so. He could relocate the library 6 feet or so to his private property, although even then he might need to satisfy city codes. But that is a 6-foot gulf he cannot bring himself to cross. Not in the names of Montaigne, Hawthorne, Thoreau and Wilde, all of whom he quoted to me in standing on principle.

It's not a private library he wants, but a public one.

And since it was installed, said Cook, people have torn themselves from their isolated addiction to TV and computer screens and answered E.M. Forster's call to "only connect." He can't let them down now because of a "cowardly, anonymous bully," nor can he give in to "the blinded Cyclops of L.A. city — wildly swinging its cudgel to destroy something that has made the city and this neighborhood a better place."

A petition to fend off the city has drawn more than 100 signatures, including one Tuesday from the mailman.

"No to bullies!" says one comment on the petition. "Library has brought the community together," says another.

City Councilman Paul Koretz's staff began investigating Tuesday. A spokesman said that if there is no clear obstruction, it might be possible to keep the library where it is if Cook is willing to apply for a permit. And it's possible that city arts funds could be tapped to pay for the permit.

Cook told me that when he and his wife were at work one day last month, it began to rain and he was worried about all the books getting damaged. When he got home, he found that someone — he doesn't know who — had carefully fitted plastic covers over all the pockets of books in the library.

That was the same day the citation was delivered.

And the same day Cook decided he'll go to court, invoke the greatest writers living and dead, and do whatever it takes to keep the Tenn-Mann Library exactly where it is.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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