Few places in the Mission are so quiet that you can hear a page turn, the gentle thump of a book set on the table or the clink of plastic CD cases as somebody sorts through the collection. It’s so silent that a chair being pushed in disrupts and a quiet sneeze prompts a woman to look up from her laptop and say with irritation, “Ay Dios.”
Welcome to the Mission library on 24th Street, the third biggest of San Francisco’s 28 branches. This one holds 91,000 books, CDs and DVDs, and some 302,000 patrons a year come through its doors. They range in age from newborns to centenarians and in taste from history books to vampire movies, but all share one trait: for their minutes or hours spent in the library, they are able to stay quiet.
On any given afternoon, wander up the wide staircase of the building, built in 1915, into a large room with vaulted ceilings. The four long tables are mostly occupied with readers scanning Bon Appetit and Mother Jones or spending hours reading La Opinion or the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. Some weigh career options with stacks of titles like “Becoming a Teacher” or “Nannies and Au Pairs.” Others use graphing calculators to solve problems and scribble answers inside spiral notebooks.
The eight computers with Internet access are full, too. Most users reserve their hour-long slot before coming in. Those less prepared, mostly teenage boys, wait in line for a turn at one of two express computers. The screens glow with e-mail, Amazon, eBay, craigslist and social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace.
One teenage girl, black hair dyed red, works on a PowerPoint presentation called “My Family Life.” A librarian spends much of the afternoon assisting her.
The library is only open for four hours on Sunday, when it typically hosts 200 to 400 visitors. One librarian says they are understaffed on this particular Sunday.
Being busy is typical for a librarian these days. Patrons checked out 8 percent more items during the past fiscal year, following on a 13 percent increase the year before.
The growth reflects a system-wide trend that began after the market crashed in October 2008, according to Michelle Jeffers, public affairs director for San Francisco Public Library. Reasons vary, Jeffers says — it could be that people are buying fewer books, need the free Internet or want to check out movies and television shows.
One librarian says that the diversity of uses is one reason she likes her job. “It crosses a whole range of human experiences. I can be helping with long division, then researching how to make Native American baskets for a presentation, then helping an 80-year-old man find gay erotic poetry.”
One older patron, Felisa, who lives on 24th Street and visits the library every two weeks, comes for everything — the newspapers, the books — and she especially appreciates the large Spanish-language collection, 22,400 items (a quarter of the total).
Another middle-aged Spanish speaker who rushes in the door with no time to talk says he is at the library to “tramite la migracion,” or process his immigration paperwork.
Pat Jury, who works nearby, stops by once a week for one reason: free movies. “You can keep them for seven days,” she says. “And they’re good people here. They’re good to children.”
Downstairs, the children’s room is noticeably more bustling than the quiet space upstairs. Small kids with big headphones sit at computers playing games. A toddler plays on the colorful carpet, trying to fit shapes into a mold. One girl finds a corner and leans against a stack of books to read.
On weekday afternoons, tutors help students who drop in.
One of those adults is Dina Gamboni, who helps first- to fourth-graders with homework each Tuesday. The library was the first place she called when she wanted to volunteer.
“For me, it’s public, I love coming here to get books, so I was comfortable here. I’m guessing parents come for the same reasons.”
Other young learners keep the library busy, too.
Ninth-grader Monet Bernesquae, who attends Immaculate Conception Academy, an all-girls high school nearby, visits the library daily.
“Me and my friends hang out here, in the kids room — I don’t know why,” she says. They read books, do homework and sometimes socialize, though she acknowledges they have to keep pretty quiet.
The loudest buzz is in the library’s front lobby, on the redesigned first floor where the entrance moved from 24th Street to Bartlett in 1999. The front area serves as the checkout counter, as well as the place where DVD collections and book reserves are located.
The front entryway is filled with strollers and couples arguing over which new television series to check out on DVD. “True Blood,” a story of vampires admitting their identities in a Louisiana town, is one of the most popular series across all branches, Jeffers says.
The Mission’s most frequently checked-out DVD in recent months has been “Bruno,” a comedy about a flamboyant Austrian man, and the kids’ favorite is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
The most popular book checked out recently at the Mission branch is local author Dave Eggers’ recent “Zeitoun,” the true story of a man’s struggle in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The city library chose it for the annual One City, One Book program, in which city residents read a book together.
The front desk is also where new patrons apply for a library card. Within minutes, after choosing one of five designs, anyone is ready to borrow. One young employee, dressed in black with her hood up, says that at times she issues six new cards per hour.
One young library card-holder carrying a stack of items, including “Captain Underpants” and “Ice Age,” approaches his mother, who is talking on her cell phone.
“I don’t know if you can get all that,” she tells him, looking down at the stack. “You have that blue CD still.”
“What blue CD?”
“It’s a bear movie. You don’t remember?”
He slowly brings his goodies back to the children’s room and his mother checks with the librarian — he does indeed have a movie checked out.
Although CDs are popular, plenty of folks still come to libraries for the same reason they have since the first Mission branch opened on the corner of Howard and 21st Street: a good old book.
That’s exactly what Steven Pomianowski, who works nearby, is looking for on a rainy afternoon. He has carried a library card for as long as he can remember, and usually doesn’t buy books.
Another middle-aged gentleman comes to the library exactly three times a week. He reserves books online and they are waiting for him when he goes to pick them up. He says he doesn’t surf the Internet or watch television, so he has more time than others to read.
Butch Lazarian, with square glasses and skinny jeans, finishes his cigarette before walking into the Mission library for the first time. He works as a library aide down on the Peninsula, but hasn’t yet visited the one in his own neighborhood.
“The library is a great place,” he says. “It makes everything available to people.”
According to librarians, the Mission branch has its share of regulars.
One of these is an older man in a Raiders hat who is asking the librarians to tell him how many mayors in California are Democrats and how many are Republicans. These odd questions are common from him.
As she places books back in the stacks, one library aide says that some library users read the same books every time — like one who loves the rose gardening books and another who always reads about building windows.
Another regular is a 30-something Latino man who comes to the library every day to use the Internet and glance at books and magazines. As he sips coffee, he flips through carpentry books in Spanish. He likes that it’s quiet here and nobody bothers him.
As one librarian says, for some people the library is “just a place to be.”