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‘Little Library That Could’ beats odds in Williamsville

The Williamsville Library was supposed to close years ago.

It was 2005, and Erie County, facing a budget crisis, cut millions of dollars for libraries. Sixteen of 52 branches were targeted for closure, including the one in Williamsville.

Yet here it is, 10 years later, and the little brick library on Main Street is still open. In fact, it’s the only one of the 16 to escape the chopping block and remain part of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

Its story is a case study of how one institution managed to keep its doors open during tough times while others around it were forced to close.

It took a little moxie, some ingenuity and a lot of determination, for sure. But mostly, it has taken hard work by an entire book-loving community.

Keeping the library open hasn’t been easy. Gone was its annual operating money from the county – all $300,000 of it – and the branch survives today by cobbling together less than half that.

Hours were slashed.

Staffing was reduced.

A third of the branch’s budget now comes from the faithful patrons donating to library fundraisers such as the annual gala scheduled for February.

But all the while, this plucky little library keeps plugging along.

“It really is ‘The Little Library That Could,’ ” said Deborah A. Habes, chairwoman of the gala.

Local communities fought hard in 2005 to keep their libraries open, but Williamsville had a little advantage.

At the time Erie County was closing branches, then-Amherst Library Director Mary F. Bobinski sought help from the town, which had the wherewithal to chip in money to keep the Williamsville branch open. The hope was to buy some time until the county got back on its feet financially. But after two years – and with county funding yet to be restored – Amherst pulled its support, leaving the little library to go it alone.

Again, the branch nearly closed.

Instead, fundraising efforts were stepped up.

Popcorn and hot dogs were sold during the village’s Old Home Days. Bottles of water were sold during the Glen Park Arts Festival. Proceeds from the used book and candy bar sales went toward keeping the doors open.

The library also had the advantage of being propped up by its three fellow libraries in Amherst – the Audubon, Clearfield and Eggertsville-Snyder branches. The other three are still fully funded by the county, and Amherst Library Director Roseanne Butler-Smith has been able to stretch those dollars to help keep the Williamsville branch open.

“When I took this position in 2007, I didn’t realize how much of my job was going to be about keeping this library open,” she said. “I didn’t ever want to be the director who had to close this branch.”

Help arrived. Four years ago, the Williamsville Business Association began sponsoring an annual gala to raise money for the library. Last year, the event raised $20,000.

The hope is to do as well at this year’s gala, scheduled for Friday at Calvary Episcopal Church, 20 Milton St.

“We can’t picture Main Street without this library,” Habes said.

A library has been part of Williamsville for more than 100 years. The current branch was built in 1960 at 5571 Main St., between Town Hall and Village Hall.

At 5,900 square feet, it’s the smallest of the four branches in Amherst. It’s open 24 hours a week, operated by a dozen or so part-time staff members and volunteers, and provides a quiet refuge from busy Main Street.

“It’s more than a library,” said librarian Beth Staebell. “It’s a community center.”

There’s comfortable seating near the magazines and a bank of computers arranged in a circle. It has eight tables; five rocking chairs; a copy machine; used paperbacks for $1; a community room where the craft, book and Lego clubs meet; and a nice big picture window to draw in the sunlight and provide a view of the village.

That’s where John G. Brodnick and his 6-year-old son, John, sat doing homework on a recent afternoon.

“We’re happy we have this library. It’s important to us,” said Brodnick, 47. “But we’re sad the hours just don’t work for us that well. Often they’re not open after school, so we don’t come in as much as we’d like.”

Despite its reduced hours and shoestring budget, the branch still ranked No. 28 in circulation last year among the 37 branches in the system, said Jeffrey F. Voelkl, president of the Amherst Library Board.

“The community is showing their support, not only by their donations, but the fact they’re coming here using the computers, attending all the programs and checking things out,” Butler-Smith said. “That’s why this library is still here.”

When it comes to Williamsville, however, the library director always has to be looking ahead.

The library should be good for this year, and probably next, but Butler-Smith is already thinking about 2017.

The branch has had some good news, though. In 2013, the Erie County library system restored $25,500 to the Williamsville branch, thanks to a bump in county funding and some lobbying by Butler-Smith.

“I wish it could be more,” said Mary Jean Jakubowski, director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. “They were the library that found a way to remain open – and they did it very creatively.”

email: jrey@buffnews.com