When a group of Russian immigrants combined their book collections 10 years ago to start a public library, they gave up more than just a few old books. Lovingly shipped and carried here, the books were their most cherished possessions.
Some brought entire private libraries with them; others managed to send only a few volumes.
What began with five boxes of books stacked in a storeroom has grown to more than 20,000 books in Russian, all of them donated by patrons and private book collectors. Two years ago, the library moved to West Hollywood’s Plumber Park, a favorite hangout for Russian seniors.
Getting the books to Los Angeles was no easy task.
“It was quite time-consuming and quite costly,” Helen Levin said. “Sometimes, you had to do it through the railroads and then ship it across the ocean. It was such a complicated thing.”
Not all books could be taken overseas. Military memoirs and complete collections of Russian classics were not allowed. Over several months, Sophia Reznik took 500 books to the Ministry of Culture in Moscow for approval before she mailed them. On each trip to the post office, she rode the bus for 40 minutes, clutching an armful of books to send to her sons in America for safekeeping.
“I went to the post office with five books at a time,” Reznik said. “It was only me, and it was heavy to carry, so I went many times. When we immigrated, we considered our books to be the most valuable things to bring.”
Reznik and her husband arrived in the United States hoping their three sons would treasure the books, carrying on a Russian tradition of literacy.
But in time, Reznik and other Russian immigrants discovered their children were not interested in old books.
“We were sorry we had so many good books and nobody else could use them. It turned out many others thought the same,” said Reznik, 80, who moved to West Hollywood with her husband, Naum, in 1986.
They put an ad in a local Russian newspaper, pooled their collections and decided to start a public library in 1993.
Patrons can find a little bit of everything, from Leo Tolstoy to Danielle Steele. University students studying Russian have come to the Russian Language Public Library to browse for titles they can’t find elsewhere, librarians say.
“The Russian immigrants who started coming to this country in the early 1970s were bringing books with them because it was in the Russian culture and nature to read a lot,” said Levin, executive director of the Russian Community Center in West Hollywood.
Naum Reznik, 84, came up with the idea to begin the Russian library in West Hollywood. A professor of mechanical engineering, Naum had founded the Assn. of Engineers and Scientists in West Hollywood, an organization of former professionals who perform volunteer work. Some of the first books donated were science texts.
Naum sat around a metal table with five colleagues in a small storeroom in the Chabad Russian Synagogue, cataloging the first donations. Community members came forward, some with just a few books, others with several hundred. Two private collectors have donated 2,000 books each.
The musty smell of bound volumes lingers in the library’s large room in the park’s Long Hall. There are no computers or electronic security systems, just two long metal bookshelves, a few folding tables and chairs, a manual typewriter and a handwritten card catalog. An old rotary telephone sits on a desk next to small boxes stuffed with the names of 750 families who have registered as library patrons.
Open from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on weekdays, the library is staffed by 15 volunteers, many of whom worked as librarians before they immigrated to the United States.
Finding a permanent home in West Hollywood remains an ongoing process. Because the city intends to renovate the Plumber Park building, the library will have to move again. City officials say they plan a new space for it. “We have moved to five different places, and each time we did everything by ourselves,” Vera Richkina, head librarian, said in Russian. “We know it will be hard.”
Wherever the library moves, patrons will probably follow.
Boris Ostrovsky, 74, visits the library weekly, riding the bus from his home near Los Feliz. Another library patron, Tatiana Sivokonenko, 76, says reading the books from her homeland “reminds me of my youth when I liked books and was reading a lot. I’m very happy to have this possibility again.”