By BONNIE BARANOFF
The Friends of the La Mesa Library are a nonprofit organization of citizens who believe that a modern, effective library is an essential service for our community. The Friends promote local awareness and appreciation of the library as a valuable center of learning, education, and pleasure, a community benefit offering key information, services and programs in addition to book dispersal.
It all started with the women of La Mesa
You can’t have a history of the Friends of the La Mesa Library without first having a library they can support.
Over 100 years ago, the visionary leaders of the La Mesa Women’s Club established La Mesa’s first formal library, a community owned and supported collection housed right inside their club house on the northwest corner of Third Street and Lemon Avenue.
When their club ran out of space in 1915, the popular library moved to La Mesa’s City Hall, where eventually and once again, inadequate space became an issue. In 1932, the library found its first permanent home at Porter Hall, in the building’s first location on University Avenue, across the street from where it stands today.
But there were even more libraries in the La Mesa area at this time. San Diego city directories from 1936 include listings for satellite branches found in businesses around town — including Emmons Mercantile Store on El Cajon Boulevard in today’s College Area — suggesting a need for more space or at least more access points.
Resident demands for library materials and services continued to grow but following the Great Depression and leading into and following World War II, there just wasn’t enough city revenue to support building a new library, let alone anything else.
Thankfully for the citizens of La Mesa, Ben Polak — La Mesa’s mayor from 1936-1948 — was a man full of determination and imagination, helping develop a unique fundraising plan to build a new library as well as a number of other projects. His idea? The “Tacky Wacky Carnival,” an annual event that amassed the required funds, and an occasion that residents enjoyed for many years. $50,000 raised at the carnival helped fund construction of the Polak Fine Arts and Library Complex, housing the Foothills Art Gallery, Lamplighters Theater, and San Diego County Library Branch. The library complex opened in 1957 as part of the new Civic Center, of which only City Hall remains.
Here come the Friends
In April 1964, the Friends of California Libraries was established and later incorporated in October 1966. Encouraged by fellow library enthusiasts in El Cajon, an organizational meeting for forming a local Friends group was called to order on Feb. 4, 1969.
It comes as no surprise that the La Mesa Women’s Club was the Friends’ original sponsor; they organized the first meeting.
The Friends purpose, from the original constitution and by-laws, states:
“The purpose of this organization shall be to foster closer relations between the La Mesa Branch Library and the citizens of La Mesa and environs; to lead in the development of a program for the extension and improvement of the Library services and resources; to promote knowledge of the functions, resources, services and needs of the Library; and to aid in the provision of adequate housing and other facilities for the library.”
Early supporters of the library and its Friends included County Supervisor Henry Boney (of Boney’s and later Henry’s and Sprouts grocery store fame).
“He felt that there is no question of the need of expanded facilities … and he felt that the Friends organization could be of valuable help in planning specifics as well as urging the Board of Supervisors to go ahead with the building since the need is urgent and costs are rapidly rising.”
A committee was formed and library expansion was realized in 1974, with an open house ceremony taking place on Nov. 6.
In 2006, that library was demolished to make room for a new police station and on July 19, 2008, the Friends hosted a grand opening celebration for the La Mesa Community Library in its current location, where the Friends were provided space for their bookstore. (Fun fact: the bookstore’s shelves are from the old library.)
50 years of support
In the years since the bookstore opened, the Friends have contributed more than $200,000 to the La Mesa Library to help pay for materials, programs, equipment, and furnishings not covered by tax funds. On Feb. 26 of this year, Friends president John Schmitz accepted a commendation from La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis “in honor of their 50th Anniversary and contributions and dedication to the patrons of the La Mesa Community Library and the city of La Mesa citizens.”
Today, the Friends continue their mission by addressing the ongoing need for additional space and funding — county and city budgets simply don’t provide enough tax dollars to cover each library community’s needs. Look around town and you will find Friends groups in most, if not all, city and county libraries.
For more about the Friends, please visit lamesalibrary.org. While you’re at it, check out the San Diego County Library website (sdcl.org) and the La Mesa Library’s online calendar where you will find information on free programs, reading clubs, tutoring, job help, concerts, and more.
The Friends of the La Mesa Library wish to thank the La Mesa Historical Society for their support with research for this article, and suggest folks visit the Historical Society’s archives to learn more about the history of La Mesa.
— Bonnie Baranoff writes on behalf of the Friends of the La Mesa Library.