Bridgeport branch library now open at East Main, Shelton streets
BRIDGEPORT — The temporary sign above the storefront at the corner of East Main and Shelton streets reads “Future Branch of the Bridgeport Public Library.”
The future is here.
Although the branch has been operating for a few weeks, the library’s new East Side location is holding an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 1.
“I’ve been waiting for it to come,” resident Sheila Foy said last Wednesday, seated at one of the tables in the spacious 7,354 square foot first floor. Foy checks out films from the library and also meets there regularly to teach English and learn Spanish, she said.
At another table a few feet away, Andrew Smith and some friends played a card game. Smith also enjoys the language books and comics/graphic novels available at the branch, he said.
Going to the library “gives me time to re-collect myself,” he said. “And it beats sitting around, doing nothing.”
“We want the community to feel it’s their living room,” said Jodi Weisz, the branch manager. “It’s comfortable, accessible, bright.”
The 1174 East Main St. location used to be Watson’s department and appliance store. That name is still engraved in the sidewalk just outside the entrance fronting East Main Street.
The building had more recently been used and vacated by the Salvation Army when the library board bought it for $325,000 to renovate and replace the Old Mill Green branch a few blocks away. The improvements, for now, were to the first floor, and cost about $900,000 in library and city money.
There are plans to renovate the second floor this spring and also some of the basement using a state grant.
“It’s unbelievable the job they’ve done,” Assistant City Librarian John Soltis, who grew up two blocks away in the 1950s and 1960s, said during a visit to the East Side branch last week. “And this is just Phase 1.”
One of the most eye-catching design decisions was to cover the sides of the building along East Main and Shelton streets with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“The (library) board said, ‘We want the community to feel part of the library just by walking by,’” Weisz recalled, adding she has received plenty of “thumbs up” from people out on the sidewalk.
Still, the library’s interior remains very quiet. Visitors can see the car and foot traffic, but not hear it.
Another striking component of the building is the floor. The paneling appears to be weathered wood, but is actually more durable rubber. Weisz credited contractor Ashlar Construction and its manager, Anthony Stewart.
“He really worked hand-in-glove with the library staff,” she said. “He was wonderful.”
Weisz said there are some creative ideas on the table for the remaining renovations, including building a small stage for performing arts on the second floor, which will eventually be the permanent home of the kids’ and teens’ sections.
And Weisz is also hoping to have second-story areas for tutoring, producing online podcasts and shared community office/work space.
She noted that the floors on the second level are very heavy — they were built to handle the weight of the bulky appliances sold at Watson’s — and therefore ensure that any upstairs activities do not disturb patrons and staff downstairs.
The basement, a puzzle of different size rooms including a few that are long and narrow, like miniature bowling alleys, will mainly be for storage. But Weisz wants to convert one very large basement room into a community space.
“It’s a big library,” Weisz said, noting from the street the branch can seem deceptively modest.
Weisz came to Bridgeport from Danbury’s public library system. The East Side’s librarian is Louis Rodriguez. Born in Columbia, Rodriguez came to Bridgeport as a young boy, was raised in the city, and got his first job with the public library.
“I worked my way up,” Rodriguez said.
Foy said the staff is very welcoming.
“People come in, they don’t know what to look for and need help,” Foy said. “Not everybody’s skilled when it comes to (using) the library.”
The new East Side site is one of three revitalized branches that the library board has been promising the community for several years.
“We are so pleased to finally see the many years of planning become reality,” said Board President Jim O’Donnell in a statement. “Construction of the Newfield Branch in the East End is on target for its opening this May, while development plans are now being completed for construction of a new location on upper East Main Street near Beardsley Park.”