entrances to Berkeley Public Library
Families leaving the Central Branch of the public library on Sunday. Photo: Ally Marcovich

With more than 10,000 students out of school because of the swelling concern over coronavirus, families feeling the pressure to keep their kids entertained and educated flocked to the Berkeley Public Library on Sunday to pick up books before it closed. Many left with at least a month’s supply of literature.

“You wonder if people are stocking up on books like they’re stocking up on toilet paper,” said Kelsey Ockert, a librarian at the central branch of the library. “And they are. Especially in the children’s section.”

Families approached the check-out station balancing wobbling towers of books, leaving empty shelves behind them.

Library patrons waiting to check out books. Photo: Ally Markovich

Even Kathryn Arlo admitted that she and her two children had gotten “a little carried away.” Her daughter Annie, a 10th grader at Berkeley High, wondered aloud at how the family would carry their books home. “That’s why we have arms!” Kathryn quipped.

Her son Arlo already returned one the books his mother picked out — The Manga Guide to Calculus. “It was just a thought,” Kathryn shrugged.

Though the library has not yet released official numbers on visitors or books checked out, Joseph Alvarez, a library assistant, described it as the busiest he’s ever seen it. “People are checking out a lot of books. Enough to turn my hair grey,” he said.

Many of the shelves in the children’s fiction section were picked clean. Photo: Ally Markovich

On Saturday, right after the Board of Library Trustees gave Elliot Warren, the interim library director the authority to shut the system, Elliot said library patronage had dropped to a third of its normal levels.

Patrons are allowed to check out 75 books at a time, but Berkeley’s most vociferous readers worry this will not be enough.

Micah, a Berkeley middle-schooler, set a goal of 2,500 pages per month; Lily Hiestand, another middle-schooler, estimates that she goes through more than 20 manga books every few days.

But it’s the littlest ones who can have the largest appetites for books.

“We usually have about 35 books checked out at a time,” said Michal Sepke, explaining that her three-year-old daughter, Juniper, reads about 15 children’s books a day. As a result, Sepke needs to be strategic.

“On this round, I got 24 books on [Juniper’s] account. That’s after I maxed out 75 on my account,” said Sepke. “This is my version of hoarding. We were too late to stockpile anything else.”

One of the last books she added to her pile? Alone Together–a children’s book about spending time by yourself.

Loading up on books is also about preparing for a long haul. “People think this is going to be a couple weeks, but they are badly mistaken,” said Tom Price, pulling off his mask. Though Berkeley schools are scheduled to reopen April 6th, it is possible that they will be shut for longer. Preparing now will give him–and his 12-year-old daughter — a sense of agency later on, Price said.

“I don’t even know what I picked. To be honest, it doesn’t matter. She’ll read them all eventually,” he said, nodding to the library’s ominous announcement to close indefinitely.

As the abundance so many Americans are used to comes under threat, a vast collection of personal library books is a way for residents to hold on. “You can go to Berkeley Bowl and have 44 varieties of fresh mushrooms, 7 days a week. That this is fragile doesn’t occur to most people,” said Price, stuffing the last fantasy book into his bag.

While the children’s section was abuzz with excited kids stocking up on favorites, the library’s older patrons worried about something that couldn’t be solved at checkout — losing the library as a community space.

Cortez Harmon has been coming to the library every day since September. When the doors shut, he doesn’t know where he’ll go. Harmon gave up his property in Berkeley to pursue his musical career, but since coming back home, he has not been able to find his own place, staying with a friend while he looks for something more permanent. He uses the library to work online, earn money, and spend time with friends.

“People you meet at the library can become your extended family,” Harmon said, motioning to Kevin Miller, a retiree whom he met at the library back in the fall. He lamented the loss of a social space for seniors in Berkeley. (Berkeley’s senior centers are also shut). “So many older people rely on the library for social intercourse, if you will. We gotta pick Starbucks next, I guess.”

Others in the unhoused community said the closing would dramatically disrupt their daily life. “We sleep. Then we come here. Without here, we’ll do a lot more sleeping,” said Joe, who preferred his last name to be omitted.

While the library plans to continue serving the community through its online offerings and by having staff continue to offer reference and other assistance by phone, nothing can replace the sense of community the space nurtures.

“I really like it as a community space. People bump into their neighbors here,” said Ockert, who was working overtime at a help desk on Sunday to help inform patrons about how to check-out online content such as e-books and movies. “We also have a lot of people that this is their only space to get internet. A lot of members of the unhoused community use this space greatly.”

People at the Berkeley Public Library in October 2019. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The gravity of the situation was not lost on Berkeley residents, and a sense of concern cut through the frenetic energy. Price likened the potentially cataclysmic effects of the coronavirus to World War II, and Berkeley resident Lea Grundy emphasized the importance of books in comforting and educating her.

“I rely on reading to get me through hard times,” said Grundy. One book she picked out was The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton, a novel set during the Holocaust. She called the selection “fitting.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...