Walking up the Huntington Beach Central Library's spacious circular driveway and into the high-ceiled foyer, patrons can turn right or left.
Right will take readers to the biographies, Charles Dickens tomes and latest John Grisham thrillers, but turning left and walking all the way down the corridor leads to a world for those under four feet.
As kids approach the children's wing, they are greeted by colorful fish in a humongous aquarium, before bubbles are blown down on them from a bubble machine and a life-sized plastic boat, complete with sail, catches their eye sitting in the back of the library between the rows and rows of books.
No one is asked to be quiet, and several times a week, children can be seen dancing or singing along during story time – their own theater.
The Children's Library, which hosts 17 story times a week and checks out more books than its adult counterpart, is losing the woman who helped create its world and another who helped maintain its charm through songs and storytelling.
Senior Librarian Mary-Pat Gonzalez and Principal Librarian Nanci Williams-Grove are retiring Sept. 30 after 16 and 34 years of service, respectively, but the two don't want to leave without a farewell story time. Gonzalez has two story times left at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sept. 25, and Williams-Grove will do one final reading Sept. 25 as a goodbye to the library. The two are hoping to see some of the children, many now grown with their own children, they have shared a book or song with over the years.
"I'm kind of hoping that for the last story time, it will kind of be a story time reunion," Gonzalez said.
'That was it'
Hosting story time hasn't been the main responsibility of both women for some time now as they moved into the administration side, but it remains one of their favorite parts of the job. Both cognizant of their responsibility as a child's first introductions to the library and world of books and learning, they have spent their years making sure children had the best experience and learn to love books.
Neither started their careers at the library, but found their place in the children's section.
Williams-Grove worked in elementary schools and preschools before applying for a job as a library clerk in the mid-1970s after the Central Library first opened. She never left.
"Once I got into that environment, that was it," she said.
Williams-Grove became a children's librarian, taking on the responsibilities of story times, puppet shows and a book show on the city's cable channel, before she was appointed interim acting children's coordinator. Later, the title was made official.
As children's coordinator, she worked to bring the existing children's wing, which opened in 1994, to reality through fundraising and planning. She also designed the wing, said Jan Annigoni, a library clerk.
"Nanci is the queen," she said. "She's been there doing the most amazing things."
It was Williams-Grove who imagined the aquarium and bubbles that greet children, the "book boat" and the child-sized door to the Tabby Theater — ideas she wanted to spark children's imaginations, she said. Part of the experience she wanted to create was allowing children to be themselves by never asking them to be quiet or adding age restrictions to any of the children's events.
'They know this is their place," she said. "We wanted them to have a good experience in the library and be comfortable."
Being directly involved with creating the space was rewarding, but it was also very difficult to move away from story time, she said. She then moved further up to principal librarian, where she oversees the children's library, media and the four-branch library, but she never left her office nestled in the back of the children's wing. She keeps it filled with stuffed animals and framed pictures of Disney characters — to entertain the kids who often pop into her office.
"I'm often asked to help them with a book," she said. "They are so excited about the book. It makes it so worth it."
A one-woman show
Gonzalez also never planned on becoming a librarian.
She started as an elementary school teacher and only started doing story time part-time in Santa Ana while she was raising her three children.
"It turned out I loved it so much," she said.
She started at Huntington Beach, as the library was completing its children's wing and started doing story time there, but she never just read a book. Gonzalez is animated and engaging and changed every time to fit her audience, Annigoni said.
"She doesn't just sit in a chair and read a book. There is singing and dancing," she said. "It's more of a show than a story time."
The story times were the highlight for Gonzalez, who said she loved to see the reactions on children's faces as they clapped, laughed or sang along. It was also the children who sat quietly week after week that she loved to perform for.
"I feel like I've been able to have an impact on kids' love of reading," she said.
Although she has moved into more administrative duties like budgets and training, she has also been able to continue with story times and training others to do story times, she said. She said she has staff who didn't think they could get up in front of the library's 100-plus crowds, but showed them they could do it.
With retirement approaching for both women, Williams-Grove said she has been looking at things in terms of her last — last Festival of Folktales, last Author's Lunch. She said leaving is going to be bittersweet with fun plans for retirement, but giving up the daily rewards of working with kids.
"Kids have kept me young and young at heart," she said.
Back after retirement
Williams-Grove and her husband are going to spend retirement visiting their grandson and great-grandson in Georgia and learning to use a motor sailboat they recently bought, she said.
"In the second chapter of my life, I'm going to learn to be a sailor," she said.
But that second chapter also includes the library. Williams-Grove said she wants to become a literacy tutor at the Oak View branch to teach English as a Second Language and will be back at the library for visits and to check out books.
"This library is a part of me," she said. "It really is."
Gonzalez is also planning on being back at the library despite her retirement. She wants to continue doing story time at the library or an elementary school and is considering volunteering at her hometown library in Orange.
While not a Huntington Beach resident, Gonzalez said she hopes can continue using the Central Library.
"I'm hoping I'll get an honorary [library] card," she said.
She is also planning on getting more involved in community theater and taking up painting.
The loss of both women at once is leaving a "huge void" in the children's library and will be extremely sad, Annigoni said.
"I personally think they're wonderful," she said. "It's like a ship that feels like it's losing their captains."