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"Friend-raising" for our public libraries?

On Saturday, May 3, the Burlingame Public Library Foundation hosted a lunch that was as much about raising funds as it was about building community. As one of the organizers put it, the afternoon was an exercise in “friend-raising.”

Michael Krasny, the host of the San Francisco Bay Area public radio station KQED’s Forum program, talked about his new book, Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life, published this year by Stanford University Press.

Burlingame Library Foundation invite Above, a swank invitation to Burlingame's library fundraiser ...
Image from wincountrygetaways.com 2004 Salinas library closure protest ... While in Salinas in 2004, readers protest "death of the libraries." They prevailed -- will your community?
Photo from indymedia.org

Michael shared his often hilarious experiences interviewing everyone from Bill Clinton to the Merry Pranksters’ Ken Kesey, detailing the journey that took him from host of a show called “Beyond the Hot Tub” in swinging 1970’s Marin (the county north of San Francisco best known for hot tubs, peacock feathers, and the self-actualization movement EST) to “Bay Area cultural institution,” as author Michael Chabon describes him.

Henry H. Neff, a teacher at the private San Francisco boys’ high school Stuart Hall, spoke about his experience writing The Tapestry, a series of young adult novels that our 10-year-old son, who’s anxiously awaiting the next installment, describes as “like Harry Potter, but even better.” Charming, funny, and articulate, Henry’s next book comes out this fall – news that our son was delighted to hear.

We each spoke in turn for about 15 or 20 minutes to the group of about 175 book lovers. I went first and began by describing how the role the St. Helena Library in the Napa Valley – perhaps the only public library in the country that’s got its own vineyard out back – played in my book. It is where I conducted two of the most difficult interviews I did for my book.

Within the main library is housed the Napa Valley Wine Library Collection, and it was in a small conference room near this special section where I met Tim Mondavi, Robert’s younger son, in the months after the forced sale of the Robert Mondavi Corporation. Tim no longer had an office at the company, so the library was a quiet and neutral place for us to talk.

With my digital recorder running, Tim told me his side of the painful family saga that I detailed in The House of Mondavi. My first interview with Tim began fairly stiffly. By the end of the second, lengthy interview, Tim became emotional and angry as he shared his perspective on how the outside directors of the Robert Mondavi Corporation

“were holding a gun to our father’s head and asked us to pull the trigger. I could not run the risk of his bankruptcy, even if he would have.”

The Wine Library was a fitting place for Tim to share his story of how one of Napa Valley’s great wineries, founded by the Mondavis, passed out of his family’s control. The library boasts a wonderful view through its big windows of “Barney’s Backyard,” a small plot of trellised grapevines named after Bernard Rhodes, a recently deceased Napa resident who was the first president of the Wine Library in 1965.

Rhodes also helped organize a retrospective tasting of Charles Krug and Robert Mondavi wines in 1985, two decades after the Mondavi brothers’ famous split. That was perhaps the first time the feuding brothers publicly came together again. Since the era of Barney’s presidency, the Wine Library Association has found all sorts of delightful ways to raise funds, including its 46th annual wine tasting, which will be held at the Grove at the Silverado Resort on Aug. 24 this year.

With severe cutbacks in state funding for public libraries, many library supporters have sought to build a circle of friends that can support them through volunteer work and gifts. In wealthy communities like Burlingame, which is on San Francisco’s peninsula, and St. Helena, the chic and pricey epicenter of Napa Valley’s wine industry, the public libraries are thriving. Perhaps there could be similar “friend-raising” events in towns such as Richmond, one of the poorest in the San Francisco Bay Area, where public libraries have been shuttered.

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the first part of your essay was hopeful _ and it is true that affluent areas are doing well by their libraries. Beverly Hills and Carmel, for instance, in California. But when you say a poorer community like Richmond has ``shuttered'' its library, that is really frightening, expanding that already terrible gulf between the haves and have-nots. We're cutting off kids with potential to do and be something at the very beginning; lousy schools, no books. As I've written several times about my hometown library in Pacific Grove, California, it has already cut back to 40 hours and this summer could drop to 25 or 20. But Pacific Grove is not a poor community. It sits on Monterey Bay and houses run into the millions. It is not Beverly Hills but it is not Richmond either. It is where John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, it is where the great marine biologist Ed Ricketts discovered the Pacific Ocean was beginning to be depleted of its resources, it is where Gary Kildall created the computer language we all use. A town like that should have a library open 50 hours, minimum, a week. And so should Richmond.