Circulatory System

Y ou might’ve seen them around town: the New Haven Free Public Library’s navy blue vans—one full, one mini—each with an inquisitive owl painted on the side. Many New Haveners only set foot in their own local branch, whether that be Ives Main Library on the green or one of the system’s four satellites. But I was curious: What’s it like to go branch-hopping with the owl? So I called up and asked for a ride.

Twice a day, drivers make at least one full loop, delivering sturdy gray plastic bins of books, DVDs, CDs and videos to the branches and returning with a new load of materials for Ives. But it turns out those vans are doing more. I hopped on board the minivan with buildings superintendent Jim O’Hair to see what else circulates through New Haven’s library system.

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One of O’Hair’s three part-time employees is delivering over 400 LED lights to the Fair Haven Branch to replace old fluorescents, but we head in the opposite direction, up Whalley Avenue toward Westville, with a few tools in the back of the van. Mornings at Fair Haven are busy, O’Hair explains, while parents and buses drop off children at Fair Haven School next door, and he prefers to stay out of the way.

It’s a Wednesday morning, though O’Hair says he usually likes to visit the branches on Fridays, when they’re closed and he can “have the total run of the place.” His job involves everything from installing light bulbs and snaking clogged toilets to maintaining the heating and cooling systems in the five buildings. He also oversees the construction portion of major projects like Ives Squared, the main branch’s new entrepreneurial community space. Outside the buildings’ walls, he manages snow removal and landscaping and even waters the plants on the Ives cafe patio. “It gets a little crazy sometimes, but it’s a lot of fun,” he says. This morning, his primary task is to check the phone lines in all four branches after an accidental outage.

When we arrive at the Mitchell Branch on Harrison Street in Westville, O’Hair checks the elevator phone while I chat with library technical assistant Scott Miller. He’s in the midst of his own morning tasks, including shelving items left overnight in the drop box and putting out the day’s newspapers. “We have pretty good circulation here, a lot of big readers in the neighborhood,” Miller says. He adds that mornings are often busy with community programs—branch manager Sharon Lovett-Graff is outside at a tree planting ceremony—and a few people always come in to use the computers.

When we’re finished talking, I follow O’Hair downstairs to the equipment room, where the phone lines are in order. So far, so good. Next stop: Stetson.

We head back down Whalley and loop around the Broadway parking island to Dixwell Avenue, pulling up to the Stetson Branch a few minutes later. A new Black Panther mural painted by local resident Katro Storm graces the otherwise plain brick wall. “I met the artist here one day and brought him some supplies that he asked for,” O’Hair says.

Stetson doesn’t open until noon today, so O’Hair uses his ID card for entry. Inside, the open, rectangular space is lit by skylights. Its collection is slated to move to the forthcoming Q House in late 2019 or early 2020, including “a 60% increase in space, investments in cutting-edge technology, and new resources for everyone,” according to the library’s project fundraising page. For now, the technology that concerns O’Hair is in working order, and we’re ready to head down to the Hill and the Wilson Branch.

Librarian Marian Huggins greets O’Hair by name from Wilson’s front desk. She and a colleague are glad to see him: The door to one of the meeting rooms isn’t locking. And when O’Hair opens up the room that houses the phone panels, a small alarm is sounding. Time for some troubleshooting.

I meet the system’s newest branch manager, Luis Chavez-Brumell, who’s eager to talk about his branch’s many programs. “Stay and Play” programming for little kids has just finished, and downstairs a class is in progress for patrons learning how to use the internet. People are usually waiting outside the door when the branch opens, Chavez-Brumell says. “They come in to use our computers—oftentimes our staff are helping folks with various technological tasks, whether it’s helping to apply for jobs, whether it’s making copies, sending faxes,… helping them thrive and do these various kind of essential things they need to have done.” In the afternoon, kids will come in from the nearby schools. “We’re definitely really excited to work with the youth,” he says and tells me about a new STEAM club for kids.

As we’re leaving Wilson, the big van, which parks there overnight, is about to head out on its morning run. Driver Tyrone McLaurin says he usually delivers three bins per branch, but lately there’ve been more.

O’Hair and I have been criss-crossing New Haven for two hours now, and I need to move on to my next gig. After lunch, he’ll scoot out to Fair Haven to check the phones there and see what else might be needed. As we drive up Howard Avenue on our return to the green, I have a broader sense of the interconnectedness of these city centers of reading and learning. There’s a logic to their placement—Stetson, Wilson and Fair Haven each nearly equidistant from Ives downtown, with Mitchell covering the western frontier. On every point of that compass, the day is in full swing.

Back at Ives, we run into McLaurin hauling bins out on a dolly. Soon the big van will pull away from the curb again, on its way to putting books and more in New Haveners’ hands.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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