Last summer, when Tim Bayer's neighborhood library in Gardenville was only open three days a week because of money problems, the fifth-grader put on a backyard carnival that raised $42.
Afterward, Tim wondered what to do with the cash.
He decided to give it to branch No. 26 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 5427 Belair Road, a few blocks from his Antanna Avenue home.
Last week, with his bike chained to the railing outside the Northeast Baltimore library, Tim sat in the children's department and explained his decision.
"I didn't care what they did with the money. I just wanted it to stay open," said Tim, who is at the library three to four times a week to "read anything I haven't read yet."
Tim is one of 938,992 people who used Baltimore's 28 neighborhood libraries last year. Many of them want the branches to stay open no matter how bad the city budget gets.
With Baltimore's declining population and stagnant tax base, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said that a sprawling system of neighborhood libraries built in more prosperous times may be "passe," a luxury beyond the Baltimore of 1993.
Branch librarians and their small, overworked staffs are eager for relief: Give us the money we need to do the job right, they say, or merge libraries.
"I've never seen a city that loves the library as much as Baltimore," says Nancy H. Pettus, Gardenville's branch manager who grew up in Tennessee. "But Pratt tries to be all things to all people, and we're not doing anything particularly well."
Twice since 1987, Pratt has tried to close branches only to back off after protests from a public that would rather maintain a crippled neighborhood library than lose it.
The fate of a branch like Gardenville, used by about 22,000 people a year but almost shut down in 1991 because of low circulation and its proximity to two other Pratt libraries, is at the center of the debate.
"The city just looks at the numbers," says Mary Clare Simon, a leader in the Friends of the Gardenville Library group. "If it comes time to close branches again, they'll look at circulation, but they won't look at what a library really means to a community."
What a library means to people like Tim Bayer and his neighbors is evident during a day of business at branch No. 26.
From the moment assistant Anne Manning flips the red sign in the front window to OPEN at 10 a.m. until she turns it back to CLOSED at 5 p.m., a visit to the Gardenville branch offers a view of city life missing from a financial analyst's balance sheet.
"I like to read good books. I've got a bookcase full of my own at home, but now books are getting so high I can't afford 'em like I used to," says Leonard Dunsmore, a 73-year-old retired trucker outside the front door last Wednesday, a few minutes before 10 a.m.
"I watch the paper for best sellers. If I like a best seller, I'll read everything that author's written," he says, four sheets of old bowling schedules in his hand marked up with book titles and authors.
When the front door is unlocked, Mr. Dunsmore is the first one inside, pointing to a long shelf tight with titles by Andrew Greeley.
"I read 'em all," says Mr. Dunsmore, who walks to the library from his Asbury Avenue home and keeps the branch's box of free grocery store coupons up to date. "Once in a while I drive to the county library in Rosedale, they have a lot more money than the city, but this is closer to home, and I know everybody here."
Story begins in 1924
The history of the Gardenville library, and the community that grew up around it, are easily found in the library's archives.
In 1924, the Belair Road Business Men's Association bought a vacant lot at the corner of Belair Road and LaSalle Avenue and deeded it to the city to build a library in a community not long removed from farmland. The city appropriated $45,000; Thomas G. Macken designed a building in the style of an old redbrick schoolhouse; and Henry L. Maas & Son built a house of books for Gardenville that opened with 3,000 volumes in 1926. The branch now has more than 30,000 books, all out on the shelves.
The branch is almost equidistant from one in Herring Run to the east and another in Hamilton about 2.5 miles west along Harford Road. Although Hamilton is a near-replica of Gardenville, a Gardenville resident who doesn't drive would have to take two buses and spend more than a half-hour to get to its library.
From December 1991 until July 1992, Gardenville was open three days a week. Since Monday-through-Friday service returned in July, No. 26 has circulated about 35,000 titles.
Needs grow, budgets shrink
It costs the Pratt $175,000 a year to operate Gardenville, including salaries for four staffers. Ms. Pettus said she was promised $20,000 for new books last year, but only received $16,000. She hopes to spend $20,000 this coming year, when the Pratt budget is expected to rise from this year's $16.6 million to nearly $18 million, not enough for full weekly service citywide.
"The little things are hard to come by," Ms. Pettus said. "I haven't been able to get any fax paper for two months." The bigger things are harder to come by. The branch needs new paint, carpet, new furniture and window blinds.
Money wasn't a problem in 1959 when Baltimore's population was 939,024 -- about 200,000 people more than today -- and branch No. 26's circulation hovered near 100,000 books a year.
In 1959, two wings were added during a complete renovation.
In one of those wings, 19-year-old Martin Tremblay searches for a subject he can teach young people.
"Something to do, something to make, something about attitude," says Mr. Tremblay, who needs practice in helping people learn for a Fundamentals of Teaching course he is taking.
Near the checkout desk, retired speech pathologist Carol "Patty" Tonkins studies ways to structure a family history she decided to put together after her sister's death.
"We grew up in Clarinda, Iowa, and it was reading that filled your days," said Mrs. Tonkins, 65, a folder of family photos spread out before her. Next to the folder is "Raney," a novel by Clyde Edgerton, for whom Mrs. Tonkins shares a passion with Ms. Pettus.
Ms. Pettus had "Raney" delivered for Mrs. Tonkins from the Dundalk branch, which also was in danger of closing two years ago. Through this friendship, Mrs. Tonkins has joined a monthly book discussion group at the Central Pratt on Cathedral Street.
"I can go to the main library if I want to, but look at this atmosphere," said Mrs. Tonkins. "It's quiet and calm."
Students break the calm
Calm until 11 a.m. when Dawn McDondald's fifth-grade class from Gardenville Elementary troops in from their school a block away. Today's project: natural disasters.
"Our school library doesn't have a lot of books," said Ms. McDonald. "If the Pratt wasn't here, we'd have to hire a bus to go to another library. We can't afford a bus."
At 11:20 a.m., an elderly man comes asking for information about making a will. A few minutes later, 19-year-old Katelyn Thomas pops in for a book on lovebirds. "I raise them," she says.
Miss Thomas works at the Rosedale branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, a library next door to a shopping center with a big parking lot. Rosedale took a big bite of Gardenville's circulation when it opened in 1974, but Miss Thomas prefers the Pratt, which has no parking, because she grew up in Gardenville.
At noon, the Addeto family -- new to Gardenville from Sacramento, Calif. -- makes its way up the front steps with a baby stroller.
Greg Addeto signs up for a new library card, one of five issued by No. 26 today. His wife, Bridgette, looks for books on cars and trains for their 11-year-old son at Furley Elementary School, one of five grade schools near the library.
The early afternoon brings people who empty grocery bags of returned books, ask for bus schedules, make copies, buy used books and pay fines to assistant Helen Madison that amount to $2 by day's end.
At 1 p.m., volunteer Charlene O'Malley shows up and starts weeding out-of-date material from the library's files. She too grew up with the Gardenville Pratt and cherishes memories of a young adult reading group she belonged to in 1966.
Staff is stretched thin
Staff skilled in literature for children and young adults -- a field pioneered by the Pratt -- have been particularly hard hit by library cuts. At 1:30 p.m., Northwood branch manager Deborah Rhodes stops by to ask Gardenville children's librarian Sally Young about the Race to Read summer program.
Northwood lost its children's librarian, and its part-time staffer was transferred to Herring Run.
Asks Ms. Rhodes: "Why do they leave us struggling to provide a service when we can't?"
A pair of elderly sisters comes in at 2 p.m. to wait for a friend to pick them up after a day of shopping. The siblings are regulars, but don't want to give their names.
Ms. Pettus confesses that they slip her a few dollars from their fixed incomes now and then to keep the library going.
"I know they need money," said one of the women as she reads The Latin Times to brush up on her Spanish. "As long as I have [the money], I'm glad to help them."
An hour and a half later, Reno, Nev., resident Gino Del Signore, back in Baltimore to visit friends, looks through a repair manual to figure out what's wrong with the --board lights on his Chevrolet Caprice.
About 4 p.m., Ryan Williams copies notes from the fifth edition of "Art through the Ages," a thick, expensive book he needs for a report on the painter El Greco.
"I can get information at home, my mother might be able to tell me something she's heard," said Ryan, a 15-year-old at Lake Clifton Senior High School. "But at the library I can see pictures and find facts, things that are definitely true."
Among the last patrons of the day is Linda Baynes from Parkside Drive, who stops by to drop off books her son needed on John Phillip Sousa, along with phonograph records of works by the great marching music composer.
Near Ms. Baynes, a trio of seventh-grade girls from Hamilton Middle School giggle as they scramble through reference books for enough information to write three paragraphs on 10 different heroes of Spanish culture.
"If we couldn't walk here," says Kelly Gilpin, age 12, "we'd have to bug our parents to drive us to some other library."
At 4:55 p.m., Anne Manning walks through the building flipping off switches to lights, copy machines and computers. The quiet building becomes quieter, and 66-year-old Jack Roscoe puts down the Motor Trend magazine he's reading and walks out as rush hour traffic clogs Belair Road.
Ms. Pettus and two staffers walk out through a backdoor, and Ms. Manning leaves by the front, flipping the red sign back to CLOSED before locking the door behind her.