Get your head out of your book

After a year of scandals, the Sacramento Public Library seems to be on the rebound. Our writer spends a couple days at the Central branch, looking for drama in all the wrong places.

No, they don’t dispense coke at the Central library.

No, they don’t dispense coke at the Central library.

“I don’t want you to be victimized,” he says.

A blue scarf covers her long, scraggly black locks, which don’t even have a touch of gray, so they must be dyed. She’s at least 60, though her black-rimmed glasses, too small for her face, make her look maybe 45.

“Twice I paid him to deliver the winnings, and twice he didn’t. Now he says he wants an advance and he’ll deliver it,” the woman explains to a clerk at the Sacramento Public Library Central branch downtown. She doesn’t mumble. In fact, she’s coherent, calm, pissed. The clerk listens patiently.

I keep eavesdropping.

As it turns out, they aren’t talking about the city’s bookmobiles or disputing late fees; the woman’s been scammed by an alleged Australian lottery operator. Twice. And now, of all things, she’s seeking help from the clerk at the second-floor information kiosk, who’s understanding but straightforward.

“Please don’t send them any more money,” he repeats.

The conversation eventually ends as another customer needs help. But the woman, visibly unsatisfied, still appears confused. Hopefully she won’t fork over any more cash.

It’s an unusual situation, yes. But incidentally, the Sacramento Public Library as an institution is no stranger to scams. You remember the headlines, right? A grand-jury investigation last July exposing bad library-employee morale and high turnover rates stemming from managerial incompetence and neglect; a maintenance and security directors’ overbilling scheme, which led to the library being ripped off for a cool $1 million; some $5 million in uncollected fines and lost materials; and a human-resources director using the library credit card to pay for her manicures.

Basically, Enron with books. Readers, citizens, employees, the public trust—talk about victimized. It’s enough to make even John Grisham’s head spin.

The library director was subsequently let go and, just this past week, the new interim director released a list of more than 300 reform proposals he’d like to see implemented. So much drama … so why not hang out at the Central branch for a couple days, since obviously—in theory—that’s where all the action’s at?

Not many rental options once the vultures have their way with the Central branch DVDs.

The row of park benches near the entrance to the Central branch is empty, which is odd, as it’s a bustling Wednesday morning. A man wedges cardboard, blankets and a sleeping bag behind a huge planter box. Cars shoot westward down I Street. It’s overcast and looks like it’s going to rain something fierce.

If you’ve never been to the Central branch of the library, no problem: It’s four floors open to the public with movies and new-release books and checkout on the first, fiction and computers on the second, magazines on the third, and genealogy and what-have-you on the fourth. Most people hang out on the first two floors. A lot of people seem to be watching DVDs on laptops, like this guy watching some flick with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.

And it’s not uncommon to see someone nodding off in the corner—even a security guard.

I climb the stairs to the second floor and hit up the men’s room, which is empty and smells freshly cleaned. They still use powder hand soap, something I haven’t seen since first grade, when some kids mixed itching powder with the soap and a classmate, Damon, couldn’t stop screaming and crying because he’d rubbed it all over his face.

I opt not to use the soap; gross, I know, but hopefully you’ll understand.

Out on the second floor, the silence is discomforting, probably because most of us are unaccustomed to quiet public places. Cars, pedestrians, Muzak—life’s soundtrack goes unnoticed until you spend time in a place like the Central branch, where everyday ambience is paused. Here, someone gets up out of a chair and the sound startles like a low-flying jet.

So when a man playing chess whispers, “Jesus, how’d you do that?” it’s like a loud fart at the movies. The guy, wearing a red hat emblazoned with “God has been so good 2 me,” is getting his ass kicked, down to a king, rook and a handful of pawns. His opponent still has the queen. Theirs is the only match going in the library this afternoon.

At another nearby table, a man in his 40s with a bushy, graying beard, stares at his Toshiba laptop. Janky headphones look like they’re about to crumble atop his bald head. The next day, when I come back to the library’s second floor, he’s in the same exact spot doing the same exact thing, wearing the same faded black parka.

Such are the daytime routines of library habitués: Find something to do, do it, keep doing it till 6 or 8 or however late the branch is open, then scurry off into the night. And why not? Despite revenue shortcomings and state deficits of unprecedented billions, the library still has everything you really need: books, movies, Wi-Fi, camaraderie, powdered soap.

If there were cots or mattresses, the Central branch would fall somewhere between the Hilton and Motel 6.

Pencil: 25 cents. Rad X-Acto sharpener: $30!

And speaking of pencils, sharpening them at the library is cutting edge: On the second floor there’s a No. 2 pencil-vending machine—“quality” pencils, 25 cents—and an X-Acto sharpener that looks like it might double as a small cannon. Their sleek design makes you wish you had something to sharpen; I can’t find a quarter. I do have a couple bucks, though, and you can buy headphones at the library for $1.50.

One guy, probably in his 50s, wearing a muddy-green sweatpants-sweatshirt combo, is doing a line-item investigation of a book’s back pages. His right hand has a death grip on one of these No. 2 pencils, and there are scribbles on a yellow legal pad. An hour later, he’s still poring over the index, like it’s Chaucer or something.

But unlike The Canterbury Tales, the second floor lacks a variety of characters—and most of them don’t feel like chatting. So it’s down to the first floor, where there’ll at least be more foot traffic and bodies.

“You think there’d be more books,” a guy complains while scoping the wall of new releases on the first floor. And he’s right: Blockbuster has thousands of rentals, but the Central branch’s new books’ shelving takes up but a few yards.

Maybe this is because the movies are just too popular. A man carrying a stack of DVDs enters the main floor and piles the flicks onto a small cart near the checkout station. Then, out of nowhere, three men scamper to the cart, grabbing at discs, cradling them in their arms and placing the unwanted titles back onto the cart. I walk over to get a closer look at the vultures, but one of them blocks me out so that I can’t get in on the action. When they leave, my options are Pan’s Labyrinth or a TV documentary on why the Twin Towers collapsed.

Around 3:30 p.m., the rain starts coming down. Soon after, the library bustles with a couple dozen folk who couldn’t stand the weather. I wait an hour for the rain to subside and bike back to Midtown, a copy of William T. Vollmann’s Riding Toward Everywhere my only checkout item for the day.

I return to the Central branch the next day for a few hours but don’t know why, because ultimately it’s boring. No drama, scandal or scams. No re-enacting scenes from Ghost Busters (boo!) or The Squid and the Whale (phew!). You hope that most of the everyday residents aren’t victims, like the woman with the blue scarf, but can’t help but wonder: Is this society’s last true sanctuary and, if so, how long will it last?