The first thing they noticed was that the reference desk was gone.

The group of Eagle Rock residents who hope to restore the community's 75-year-old, and now empty, library building took a beating in the arena of finance last week, but its members still managed to celebrate one small victory, proving nostalgia can be more powerful than bureaucracy.

On balance, it would appear that the week's loss outweighed the gain. It was certainly more measurable. It came on Friday when Gov. George Deukmejian took his blue pencil to the 1989-1990 budget sent him by the Legislature. Among the $646 million in item vetoes was one that would have given $250,000 to the library restoration project.

The item had been supported by the area's legislators, both Democrat and Republican, as one portion of a $900,000 package that must be put together to restore the Mission-style building on Colorado Boulevard, just west of Eagle Rock Boulevard.

"This is definitely a slap in the face of the people of Eagle Rock," said Brad Sales, deputy to Councilman Richard Alatorre, who appointed a blue-ribbon committee in January to decide how the refurbished building should be used.

The committee had been working on the assumption that the money could be raised. Now, without the grant, the city has less than a third of the money committed.

"We've now got a long way to go," Sales said. "Maybe if we get a new governor who'll be more sympathetic . . . "

That sense of resignation unfortunately pervaded the celebration Monday for the committee's first big victory, concerning something less tangible than dollars--the library's original reference desk.

It was discovered missing in January, when the newly formed committee took its first look through the building.

Most of those in the group were longtime Eagle Rock residents and library users. They had first stepped into the building as long as 20 years ago and later had sent their children there. They were seeing it for the first time since at least 1981, when the branch moved to a new building a few blocks away.

The first thing they noticed was that the reference desk was gone.

Shirley Minser, an Alatorre deputy and member of the committee as well as a former habitue of the library, stared intensely at the empty space where the lacquered oak horseshoe had stood.

"We've got to get it back," she vowed.

The investigation proved an easy one. The desk was in the Wilshire District. The branch library there had needed a reference desk, so the Library Department simply had it dismantled and moved.

"So we went to the Library Department and said, 'Hey, you didn't ask us,' " Minser said.

Alatorre aide Michael de la Torre said Assistant Library Director Thomas Alford defended the spiriting away of the desk as standard procedure.

"We indicated to him that quite frankly, it wasn't acceptable," De la Torre said. "We indicated that the desk was part of the historical furniture of the Eagle Rock community."

It was returned in June.

Monday afternoon, Minser and her boss, Alatorre, joined two other members of the blue-ribbon committee in a subdued celebration welcoming it back.

A policeman let them through the door into the musty main hall where wooden bookshelves stood empty, some tipped onto the floor, just as they had been in January.

The horseshoe desk, still in three pieces, was arranged somewhat loosely where it had stood for decades.

Somehow, it didn't look quite as impressive as it must have under the spell of a living librarian.

Minser strode up to it triumphantly.

"This is the old desk," she assured herself. "We've got the old desk back."

To pose for a quick photo, Alatorre, in gray suit and aqua tie, stepped behind the desk with two members of his committee, Dorothy Beichel, president of the Friends of the Eagle Rock Library, and Ralph Sherman, representing the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society.

"Where do you want to do it?" Alatorre asked, a sly smile crossing his face as he pointed to an empty bookcase. "How about over here to look at a few books."

However, Beichel, a graying woman in a print dress, brushed aside the joke. She tugged seriously at Alatorre's elbow. She wanted to talk money.

"Why don't they apply to the Carnegie Library for a grant?" she asked Alatorre. The councilman said he thought that would be taken up at the next committee meeting.

"Do you know when our next meeting is?" Alatorre asked Minser.

"Tomorrow, 5:30," she said. "You're going to be there."

"Why don't we apply to the Getty Fund?" Beichel persisted. Alatorre chewed on his gum and smiled.

When the pictures were taken, he put on his sunglasses and thumbed through an old Life magazine discarded on a counter.

Then the celebration was over. All filed out and the policeman locked up behind them.

The next day, the committee launched its search for the missing quarter-million dollars.

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