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Patrons and volunteers of the nonprofit Friends of the Santa Maria Public Library bookstore are dismayed at the shop's impending closure, the result of an inability to hammer out an agreement defining the organization's operations and use of the library's space. 

“They were wonderful for the library,” said former city librarian Jack Buchanan, who also volunteers for the Friends' bookstore. “They supported the library a thousand ways — not the least of which is monetarily.”

The store will close Tuesday.

First incorporated in 1983, the Friends of the Library has operated the used bookstore located directly inside the Santa Maria Public Library for nearly 10 years. The group — which operates the store with one part-time employee and dozens of volunteers — has donated more than $500,000 to the Santa Maria Public Library over the past 10 years, said Joyce Hall, Friends board president.

The shop takes up around 1,050 square feet of space and features several large bookshelves filled with hundreds of hardcover and paperback books. 

During the past two years, the Friends and library were unable to agree to terms for a memorandum of understanding -- a document that defines the general principles of agreement between different parties -- or lease.

City Manager Jason Stilwell said the intention of the lease and MOU was to define roles the library and Friends would have with respect to one another and the rules for use of shop space.

Starting in 2016, the nonprofit and the city began discussion regarding the MOU, but the process stalled as the Friends objected to language the city included in the proposed MOU.

In May, Stilwell sent Hall an email giving the Friends an ultimatum and asking that they sign the lease by July 1 or vacate the library by Aug. 1. Stilwell said the city was at risk of liability if the Friends continued to operate without a formal agreement in place. 

The sticking points

In 2016, Friends board President Hall said the library requested the organization sign an MOU with the city. Previously, the Friends operated without one and did not pay to use the space.

City librarian Mary Housel said the three other Friends groups the library works with — Guadalupe, Orcutt and Los Alamos — all recently signed MOUs with the library.

“It’s a pretty standard thing now in the library word,” Housel said, adding that other groups using space in the Santa Maria library, like the Central Coast Literacy Council, have signed their own MOUs.

“(The Friends) mean well and they’ve done a lot of of good for the library,” Housel said. “I think it’s a shame that we weren’t able to agree to an MOU.”

Hall said Friends was in favor of signing an MOU but the city insisted on including language that would give library administration managerial control over the nonprofit.

Hall pointed to language in the MOU which she said would allow the library administration to order the dissolution of the Friends nonprofit.

“[It would be the Friends’ responsibility] to disband … if a Friends group ceases to actively fundraise for and/or promote the library and support the goals and objective of the of the Library as determined by Library Administration,” read the initial MOU the nonprofit was presented in 2016. A revised version of the MOU presented to the Friends in 2017 also included similar language.

The Friends submitted a revised MOU that the organization would be able to support, but the city declined to adopt the suggestions, Hall said.

In March, the city asked the Friends to sign a lease, which Hall objected to as it contained language that would require all net receipts of the library shop to go toward library operations, while the Friends typically specify their cash donations be earmarked for specific purposes like book or media purchases.

While Housel said the library’s MOU was not intended to allow the city to have managerial control over the Friends' operations, she conceded the library administration did want to control the hiring of Friends volunteers.

“We did want to control that and we have always wanted that,” Housel said.

“They wanted complete control over hiring volunteers, but the city requires we hire them and review their backgrounds,” Housel said, adding that the high-visibility location of the library shop made it important all the volunteers were trained. 

Stilwell said there was a liability risk to the city if the Friends volunteers did not have the same training as city volunteers.

“What we wanted to lay out is if they’re interfacing with children, do they meet requirements the city has to make sure this group of volunteers are meeting the requirements for our insurance and risk management,” Stilwell said, adding that the city’s own volunteers go through pre-volunteer requirements and have ongoing training.

In the lease presented to the Friends this past March, the city asked the nonprofit to pay for the fingerprinting of its volunteers and mandated that volunteers could only work in the Friends' store with approval from the library. 

Hall said the organization agreed to pay for the fingerprinting of all its volunteers but did not agree that its volunteers needed the library's approval to work in the store. 

Reaction to the closure

After retiring in 2002, Buchanan returned to serve as the city librarian from December 2007 to 2010. During that time, he oversaw the opening of the new library in 2008 and said the plans for the new facility were designed with the Friends’ shop in mind.

“The library shop was always in the original plans,” Buchanan said. “In fact, it was the focal point. It’s right out here in the lobby. It was meant to give the Friends prominence.”

Santa Maria High School history teacher Andrew Dolan is one of the library’s patrons disappointed in the shop's closing, noting the prices of the books, which start at 25 cents.

“It was one of the only places where teachers could come to get books for students at prices they could afford,” Dolan said.

What lays ahead

Housel said there’s been no decision on what will be used in the space currently occupied by the library shop.

“We have a lot of ideas,” Housel said. “We were looking at a passport processing service, but I’m not sure. We may put out a request for proposal to see if anyone is interested in that space. We want someone that would be a good fit for the library.”

Looking to the future, Hall said the Friends will continue to raise money and support the library. The Friends have already rented office space — located at 1000 S. Broadway, Suite B — for administration and to run its online book sales on — which have become a growing part of its operations, Hall said. 

Additionally, Hall said the organization has also scheduled a three-day book sale in Shepard Hall from Sept. 20 to 22 and will continue with its annual Painted Chair fundraiser

“We’re not going away,” Hall said.

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed


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