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Closing book on memories South Cheektowaga and Greenhaven libraries on Friday will become the first of 16 branches to shut down, and the process is emotional

Closing down a library is a lot like packing up and selling the family home. It's hard work sorting through years of accumulation and figuring out what to do with it.

It's also emotional, as every item brings back memories, and old friends from the neighborhood stop in to say goodbye.

That's what it has been like these days at the South Cheektowaga Library on William Street and the Greenhaven Library on Greenhaven Terrace in the Town of Tonawanda. Both are closing Friday. They are the first of 16 libraries scheduled to close in the coming weeks, as the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library downsizes from its current 52 branches and tries to slash expenses.

The library system hasn't shut a branch since 1982, when it closed the Genesee Library, so Greenhaven and South Cheektowaga are test cases for what's ahead.

"When you close a library you don't just turn off the lights, lock the door and walk away," said Carol Batt, the library system's public services administrator, who is involved with the logistics of the closings.

Greenhaven and South Cheektowaga were erected in the 1960s. Both are small, nondescript buildings where neighborhood kids rode their bikes for story hour and retirees stopped in to read a magazine.

Situated near the William Street ramp to the Thruway, South Cheektowaga has been a popular stop for lost travelers asking directions. Staff got to know the regulars and their reading habits.

Greenhaven, meanwhile, drew vehicle traffic off bustling Niagara Falls Boulevard, as well as pedestrians from the tree-lined neighborhoods nearby. Part of the floor slopes, and the staff lounge still has furniture from the 1960s, but the branch is bright and comfortable.

Sept. 30 was chosen as the shutdown date for the South Cheektowaga and Greenhaven libraries, while the remaining closings will be staggered to ease staff and patrons through this downsizing period.

The two branches have been in library limbo since circulation was stopped Sept. 2 to allow the facilities to collect as much of their borrowed materials as possible.

"We've had little children come in and run over to the kids section, but we have to tell them they can't take anything out," said Linda Rizzo, the branch manager at South Cheektowaga for the past five years. "That's been the hardest thing. They don't understand."

Some patrons still wander into the branches to return a book, use the computers or say goodbye to the librarians. Knowing the end is near, a couple of patrons stole materials from South Cheektowaga. One woman walked into Greenhaven and threw her library card at the staff.

But for the most part, it has been eerily quiet at the branches. It's not the usual hush of a library but a stillness of a branch in its last days.

"Ma'am, do you know you can't take anything out," a Greenhaven clerk said to Patricia Tomczak on a recent afternoon.

"No, I didn't know," Tomczak said.

"The library is closing," the staff member told her.

Tomczak used to live on Greenhaven Terrace until moving to the City of Tonawanda. She remembered walking to the library with her children and later with her grandchildren.

"It's such a shame," she said as she retreated for the door. "Is the library on Main Street staying open?"

In recent days, librarians throughout the county system were welcomed to Greenhaven and South Cheektowaga to pick from the shelves. They loaded up boxes of children's books, DVDs and additional copies of popular titles to boost collections at their libraries.

"It's a very strange feeling seeing your library disappear and go out the door," said Millie Dekoff, branch manager at Greenhaven. "But it's nice to see it going to a good home."

"We all tried to make it as comfortable as we could for each other," Rizzo said. "There were lots of tears, lots of hugs."

Staffs at both branches -- seven employees at Greenhaven and five at South Cheektowaga -- have been busy deleting from the systems' computer files the thousands of books still left on their shelves. One by one, the materials are stamped "discarded."

Greenhaven will get rid of its remaining stock by holding a book sale Saturday, Monday and next Tuesday. South Cheektowaga will do the same in the coming days.

Whatever remains -- tables, chairs, bookshelves -- will be turned over to the towns of Cheektowaga and Tonawanda, or auctioned. Little will be left of the libraries that spanned five decades.

"It's emotional when you start breaking up collections that took years to build," said Ann Kling, the system's support service administrator, who's coordinating the closings. "But Millie and Linda have been more than gracious."

Within a month of closing, the keys to Greenhaven and South Cheektowaga will be turned over to the towns of Cheektowaga and Tonawanda, which own the buildings. Tonawanda may sell the Greenhaven building; Cheektowaga has interest in using South Cheektowaga as a community center.

Rizzo then will be transferred to the Julia Boyer Reinstein Library on Losson Road, but her position as branch manager will be downgraded. Dekoff and her staff are being laid off.

Meanwhile, there's still plenty to do -- clean out desks, finish year-end reports, make sure any mail gets forwarded.

Rizzo can't bear to take down the children's artwork still hanging on the walls.

"I just think of those other libraries that have to go through this," she said.


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