Looking for John Grisham’s latest novel at the local branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library?
You can join the 1,200 people on the waiting list across the county library system, or skip the line by paying $2.50 at the Rowland Heights branch.
Since county supervisors eliminated funding for new books in July, some libraries have started renting books to make money. In the San Gabriel Valley, best sellers purchased by library booster groups are rented at the Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights and Claremont branches.
“I am sorry it has got to this, but the library must get the money from somewhere,” Richard McKelvey said as he stood in the checkout line at the Rowland Heights branch with his rental copy of “The Client,” Grisham’s new best seller.
“People are very understanding of the fact we don’t have any money to buy books,” said Sherna Cowan, the branch’s community library manager. The library’s book budget plummeted from more than $100,000 to zero in the last two years.
County library policy allows booster groups to buy and rent books as long as a free copy of the book is circulating in the 87-outlet county library system. So far, booster groups have begun renting books at 10 county libraries.
The Rowland Heights branch rents its 35 best sellers for $1 to $2.50 a week. The branch also rents about 200 videos and books on tape. The revenue pays for children’s programs and reference materials.
Since August, the Hacienda Heights branch has rented 250 books at $1 a week. The books include English-language bestsellers and popular new Chinese-language books. After six months, the rentals join the regular collection.
“We are aiming to raise enough money to buy 10 to 15 books a month with the money from the rental collection,” said Chuck Kaufman, the branch’s community library manager.
The Claremont branch has rented best sellers since June, when its booster group, Friends of Claremont Public Library, donated $250.
John McClellan, the library’s manager, said the rental collection has grown from 10 to 15 best sellers to 80 books. The money goes to buy more rental books.
County Librarian Sandra Reuben said the image of the county renting popular books the way Blockbuster Video rents tapes is regrettable, but “this is one of the few things that can be done for now with the severe budget reduction.”
Since the county library system’s budget was cut from $69 million to $34 million, hours have been curtailed and libraries have depended on donations to add to the regular collection, she said.
No county money is spent on the rental books; they are all paid for by library boosters, Reuben emphasized. “Some people say it’s wrong to charge the public for materials and I say, ‘Yes, we don’t charge for our normal collection.’ ”
The last time book rentals were tried in the county library system was in 1978, after voters passed Proposition 13 and library funding was slashed.
Some city libraries, including those in Beverly Hills and Covina, have rented best-selling books for years.
Reuben hopes library funding will be restored by Senate Bill 566.
The measure, passed by the Legislature and now on Gov. Pete Wilson’s desk, would allow counties to assess property owners to help pay for libraries.
Without extra funding, as many as nine libraries in the San Gabriel Valley could be closed. Countywide, 43 are in jeopardy, library officials say.
Sympathetic toward the libraries’ plight, the public has generally accepted the idea of renting books, library officials and patrons say.
“They’ve got to raise money to keep the library going for the children,” said patron Lupe Santos, who takes her children to the Rowland Heights branch.
Besides, she said, “If you pay a couple of dollars for a brand-new book each week, you’re still saving $15 or $20.”
Book rentals have come under criticism in Hacienda Heights, however.
Chinese-American patrons complained that they felt discriminated against when they saw a sign in Chinese informing them they must pay $1 for new Chinese-language books. A Chinese-language newspaper ran an article attacking the rentals.
“People get the impression they are being singled out by the library,” said Cecilia Yu, an attorney who lives in Hacienda Heights, which is 26% Asian, according to the 1990 census.
Like books on the English-language best-seller list, the new Chinese books were in demand so extra copies were bought with private funds, said Karen Garofalo, former president of Friends of the Library.
“We wouldn’t set up a Swahili collection,” she said.
Kaufman, community library manager of the Hacienda Heights branch, said more than 1,000 Chinese books are in the 63,000-book regular collection and are free to anyone with a library card.
“We’re not discriminating,” he said, noting that the branch’s book budget of more than $100,000 was eliminated by budget cuts. “We are trying to do the best we can to raise money.”