April 08, 2020

Bangor Public Library reopens > Readers happy to return to expanded facility; stacks now open

No conventional fanfare accompanied Monday’s opening of the refurbished Bangor Public Library. Oh, there were flowers, and plenty of them. One patron dropped off a box doughnuts for the library staff. Someone else sent food. But business was pretty much as usual. Books coming in, books going out. Just as they have for the last 16 months while the library, which was undergoing repairs and expansions, was housed temporarily in the old Marden’s building in Hermon.

An official opening will be held in May, so the fanfare for yesterday’s event came only in big smiles, raised eyebrows, and gesticulations of wonder at the library’s freshly painted walls and newly carpeted floors.

“Welcome home,” said Pam Healy, a Bangor native and the first person to walk through the doors at opening time. She was greeted by a library worker passing out maps.

“I’ve just been waiting to get back here,” Healy said later. “It’s just gorgeous. It’s beautiful. Say what you want about computers, but there’s nothing like a book.”

Especially a book you can get your hands on. And that’s the most enchanting change at the library. The stacks are open to the public, so when you go to get the book “Family Homeopathy,” your eyes can browse across the shelf to “The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine” and “Reiki — Healing Yourself and Others.”

If you have the kids with you, as two mothers did yesterday, there’s a chance they’ll find something, too.

“Look, Mom!” said one boy as he yanked a book off a shelf. His mother made him put it back, and he soon was crawling through a series of holes that used to be windows but now look like tiny doorways in the wall. Architect Robert A.M. Stern respectfully preserved as much of the former library as possible, so throughout the building, there are windows and brick walls in unconventional spots. The design works in an intriguingly rustic way — especially in a town that appreciates its own history the way Bangor does.

Once you have a pile of books, you can take them all to a comfortable chair (designed by Stern, too) in a sunny spot, such as the main reading room or the card catalog room where the natural light streams through high windows.

But there’s also the favorite nook of Barbara McDade, the library director and kingpin for this project to provide Bangor readers with more space of both the physical and intellectual kinds. On the upper level next to the travel and history stacks, a row of Art Deco-style chairs lines a wall of windows that look out over busy Harlow Street and beyond to seven steeples and the Standpipe.

McDade likes this spot, she said, because of the light and the view and the nearby reading material about political science, which she studied in college. She looked tired but nevertheless was gracious to each passer-by. The library turned out almost exactly the way she wanted, she assured, but she had hoped the opening would be more orderly. As she strolled through the rooms where books were still being unloaded and wires were still being tucked in, she winced at the remaining construction material and unpacked crates. One bookcase had unfinished wood showing, so she covered it with a framed poster of the prose poem “Desiderata.” When two volunteer tax counselors asked where they should hang their posters, McDade warned them against putting tape on the walls.

“I wanted everything to be just right,” said McDade, whose office is in the heart of the library. “It will never look like this again.”

Though she may be as fastidious as a proud parent when it comes to the library, McDade is self-effacing about her role as the visionary for one of the most important face lifts in the city’s history.

“People really wanted this,” she said over lunch in a downtown restaurant where even the waitress served up a congratulatory comment. “I was just in the right place at the right time. This is something that needed to be done.”

Although the spirit of the library was festive, not everyone was an easy sell. One woman complained about an outdated sign from the previous format (the new signs are smart and helpful) and a teen-ager said he thought the old building had more mystique. But others were agog at the clean, cream-colored walls, sea-mist green upholstery, slate staircases, and, in the bathroom, the marble counters with brass fixtures. You got it: no more pull-chain flushes.

“I got goosebumps walking through the stacks,” said Orono resident Marie Lusth-Winn, who snapped photos of the place with a disposable camera. “This place was my mental health clinic when I was going through a divorce. And now this is very, very open, very, very, very big. I really do love it.”

Librarians in the street-level children’s room were taking bets on who the first patrons would be Monday. Doreen Olson of Charleston showed up with her three kids ages 5 and 2 years and 6 months.

“We’ve been waiting for this day, haven’t we, Becca?” she said to her 5-year-old daughter. “Let’s go find some books.”

Anne Mundy, director of children’s services, threw up her hands and said, “Let’s have a celebration!” Then she led the children through the winding stacks of picture books and early readers, toward the larger of two story rooms. The kids ran up to a small stage and began twirling in a circle while singing “Ring Around the Rosie.” Mundy laughed as she watched.

“Our goal was always to get books directly to children’s hands,” she said, leaning on a child-size shelf. “We have a whole new landscape here now. We’re going to have to reinvent what we do here. I hope the kids will find that it’s fun here and not too much of a maze.”

By afternoon, the parking lot across the street was full. At the library, teens were wandering through the hallways and exploring alcoves. Through all those months of construction, many of Bangor’s homeless people moved to the Brewer library for daily warmth and rest. They, too, were back in their regular — much spiffier — digs yesterday. Others were surfing the Net, browsing through magazines and bumping into friends.

Mark Maynard, a customer service supervisor at Service Merchandise, goes to the library three or four times a week. As a child, he developed a love of books at the New York Public Library. Yesterday, he arrived shortly after the Bangor library opened and, at lunchtime, was still gathering books on chess and fishing.

“We don’t live by work alone,” Maynard said. “Bangor’s quite lucky to have this facility. It blends in well with downtown and is not obtrusively out-of-place. This reading room catches the morning light and makes you want to read.”

Kathy Batey, an 18-year-old from Dexter who was looking for books on doing taxes, put it another way: “I’ve been waiting for them to open for, like, forever. I’m totally out of books to read.”

McDade hopes eventually to develop adult programs and to extend regular hours to include Sundays, but said there’s lots more to accomplish before she’ll be organizing those changes. Although library workers no longer have to fetch books for patrons, they will have to help others find books. Now that the stacks are open, each library worker will be responsible for keeping a section neat and orderly. And there’s a security system to keep patrons from wandering off before checking out books. A new staff member — a janitor — will help keep the building itself in working order.

One quiet change will be in the leniency with which overdue fines have been totaled over the past year and a half. You can expect those fines to be tallied with accuracy and speed now.

That’s a small price to pay for a library that is not only easy to use and elegant to look at, but also right in the heart of Bangor’s downtown.

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