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Food for mind, and body

Once forbidden, snacks and drinks now offered at some libraries

The cafe in the atrium of the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy has become a spot for socializing. Here, teens play a card game. The cafe in the atrium of the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy has become a spot for socializing. Here, teens play a card game. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Wendy Chow
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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RANDOLPH - Ever wish you could sip a cup of hot chocolate or munch on chips while studying at the library? At the Turner Free Library in Randolph, snacking is now not only allowed, it is encouraged.

Sara Slymon, director of the library, said the days of libraries banning food and drinks are long gone. “Increasingly, the philosophy is that since we let people use our materials at home, where they eat and drink, why shouldn’t they enjoy a snack while using our materials here?’’ she said recently.

The idea of libraries allowing food and drinks is nothing new, said Slymon. Indeed, a number of them in communities south of Boston even have café services or vending machines, including those in Braintree, Cohasset, Hingham, Milton, and Quincy.

In this area, the library with the most impressive food service is perhaps Quincy’s Thomas Crane Public Library on Washington Street. When the library was renovated in 2001, a full-service sandwich shop with a seating area was built into the lower level of the atrium featuring two-story-high glass walls.

Harry R. Williams III, director of the Crane Library, said food services at libraries have been catching on across the country, some faster than others.

“Many of us in the Northeast have the stereotype that we’re progressive, but many parts of the country have been exploring ideas like this for quite some time,’’ he said. “I think we’re kind of slow adopters here. I’ve heard tales, 15 years at least, of libraries having cafés. The acceptance level really varies from region to region but also from individual communities. A lot of times it’s just a matter of trying it and finding that the world doesn’t come to an end if you do it.’’

Williams said his library’s café has become a place for residents to gather, including teenagers engaging in role playing or trading-card games. “There’s a lot of mingling, not specific library activities, in the atrium,’’ he said. “It’s more of a socializing and relaxing place.’’

The café is operated by Bilal Beydoun, a native of Beirut, who says he sees many regulars at the Crane. “Students, teachers, lawyers. They all like to work in the library,’’ he said.

On a recent Thursday evening, while a number of tables were occupied by teenagers playing with trading cards, Quincy resident John McDonald, president of a local theater group, was quietly waiting for friends to join him. Asked about the idea of food in a public library, he said, “I think it’s smart; it’s a real perk to have this in a public facility.’’

McDonald said he often holds meetings here, preferring the library over area coffee shops because of the noise level and ambience. “It’s a nice place to gather.’’

Most libraries that allow food have restrictions on where it may be consumed. Quincy restricts food to the atrium, but covered drinks may be taken to other areas of the building.

But a good number of public libraries south of Boston still ban food from their premises, staying the course on the notion that libraries are places of study, not snacks.

“We don’t sell any food or drink at the Brockton Public Library,’’ said Keith Choquette, the acting library director. “In fact, we do not even permit our patrons to bring in food or drink from the outside.’’

In Randolph, Slymon said the Friends of the Turner Library had been working on getting a café started at the library for about a year. While the original idea was to offer a full café with fresh baked goods operated by staff, the lack of resources led them to start with vending machines.

Two vending machines, situated near the reference area, are stocked with drinks and snacks. Also in the area are used books for sale as part of the Friends’ ongoing book sale initiative.

Slymon said the refreshments’ prices are competitive with those at local convenience stores. “We get a lot of kids who come here straight after school and they’re hungry,’’ she said. “What we’re hoping is that instead of stopping at the store to get a bag of Doritos on the way here, they’ll just spend their $3 here.’’

Slymon was quick to point out that only snacks and drinks are allowed in the library, not full meals that could disturb others with their aromas. “We actually had someone come in with a hot tray full of ravioli,’’ she said, of an example of what’s prohibited at the library.

Foley Coffee & Vending of Norwood provides the vending services at the Randolph library, and the Friends get a percentage of the sales. “It’s a good fund-raising opportunity. The beauty for us is that we have zero overhead, so it’s all profit,’’ said Slymon.

The money raised will go toward Friends programs at the library such as museum passes, meet-the-author events, and other activities for children and adults.

“I have no idea how much we’ll earn, but I expect that it’ll be very successful,’’ Slymon said.

The Hingham Public Library has two vending machines and earns 10 percent of the sales, which is about $1,200 a year, said Joan Allen, the library’s business administrator.

While the Hingham and Randolph libraries offer food also as a way to raise money, the directors of other area libraries say the service is solely for the benefit of patrons.

“We derive no profits from this service,’’ said Jackie Rafferty, director of the Paul Pratt Memorial Library in Cohasset. “People using the library really appreciate the food and beverage service.’’

Braintree’s Thayer Public Library has offered snacks and drinks since its new building opened in 1999.

“I think the original decision was made to make the library a comfortable and attractive environment that people would want to continue to visit over and over again,’’ said director Betsy Wolfe. “This is not a fund-raiser for the Friends. In fact, they just about break even on the costs. The Friends Café is really meant as a service to our patrons.’’

Wendy Chow can be reached at wchow@globe.com.