Read It and Weep: Library Closings Will Cost Us

There have been some powerful voices speaking out over the crippling budget cuts being contemplated for Los Angeles County government. Cut my budget, says Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, and I'll lay off prosecutors and won't press misdemeanor crimes in court. Reduce my budget, warns Sheriff Sherman Block, and I'll shut down some jails and let some criminals go free.

So far, there's been no huge outcry on behalf of the hundreds of kids like Mike, a sixth-grader from Marianna Avenue Elementary School who has a book report due in about two weeks. Or for grinning youngsters like Debbie Solis and her friends Ana Martinez and Sally Arredondo, who look forward to watching children's films every Tuesday.

The Anthony Quinn Library, where I met Mike, Debbie and many others, is one of 43 county libraries facing closure. Its fate is linked to the budget-slashing that the supervisors must do because of declining state aid. In addition to the closings, the $64-million library system, with 87 branches, is proposing a 50% reduction in services for those remaining open.

The young regulars at Quinn have little idea who Garcetti or Block are. But they know their library, and they were crestfallen when told that the library may close. "They can't do that," cried one tearful youngster.

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Quinn, located in a bunker-like building at the corner of Brooklyn and Hazard streets in East L.A., has already sustained some deep cuts. Before last November, it was open six days a week. Now, it's open only four. County officials say Quinn as well as the nearby branches of City Terrace and El Camino Real are on the targeted list because they aren't used enough and because of their proximity to bigger county libraries.

County officials argue that the Eastside's needs can be met by the bigger, better-equipped East Los Angeles Library, located next to the East L.A. sheriff's station in Belvedere Park.

But that makes no sense to Quinn's users, especially the youngsters from the local schools--including Marianna, Hammel Street Elementary and Belvedere Junior High.

For these kids, who make up about 65% of Quinn's users, it's the only game in town because "the libraries in the schools where these kids go have very little to offer," said Alfredo Zuniga, Quinn's head librarian.

A library's value can't always be measured by its circulation numbers, Zuniga said. While Quinn reported about 4,200 circulated items in May--larger libraries report much higher numbers--youngsters will look through as many as 10 books in an afternoon without checking any out, he said.

On a recent afternoon, 9-year-old Rosie Ortega carefully looked over five books before putting them back on the shelves.

"I sometimes imagine I have these books at home," she said. "But I never check them out. That way, I can always come back and see them."

Some youngsters said it's unlikely they'll go to the larger East L.A. library if Quinn closes. Johnny Alvarez, who is 11, said his parents won't let him go there because it's in hostile gang territory. "Too dangerous," he explained.

All of this makes the library's namesake--a famous local boy--seethe with disappointment and anger.

Quinn went to Hammel and Belvedere Junior High and lived with his parents on the very spot where the library is now located. He donated many personal mementos to it, including books, school yearbooks, paintings and materials from a motion picture career of more than 170 films.

Quinn says a county official tried to hit him up for the $180,000 it would take to keep the doors open. But the 78-year-old actor says it's just not in him to dole out the money or ask others to do the same.

"I wouldn't ask anyone to help," he said on the telephone from New York. "That's not me. I've lived through the Depression. I know certain things have to happen. You can't cry about it. I think of the people being flooded out by the Mississippi . . . But that library, and everything I gave it, is of personal interest to me. It's me! It's my life!"

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I know that little library is a vibrant part of life in that neighborhood. I grew up there and, like Quinn, went to Hammel. I understand his anger at the prospects of a shutdown and his demand that, in that event, his mementos be returned to him. "To hell with them," he said of those responsible for the predicament.

Perhaps the supervisors should drop by the Quinn library. They could do a little reading on the importance of literacy and, at the same time, look into the faces of Mike and Rosie and Johnny as they prowl the shelves.

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