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For Chinatown, a new chapter

Residents hope library is preface to new branch

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / September 21, 2009

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When children in Chinatown want to go to the library, it takes more than just a walk down the street.

Without a branch for more than a half-century, the residents of this neighborhood have to hike to Copley Square or the South End any time they want to browse the stacks or use a public computer.

That will change - at least temporarily - next month when a local nonprofit opens the Chinatown Storefront Library in an unused space at 640 Washington St. For three months, visitors will be able to read newspapers in English and Chinese, comb through books on cool, movable shelves, and use computers in a cafe-style environment designed by Harvard graduate students.

“It’s an awesome idea,’’ said 16-year-old Bao Tran, as he and his friends walked into a local community center one recent afternoon. “Now we don’t have to go to Copley. It’s too far.’’

The library idea was conceived by Leslie and Sam Davol, who run the nonprofit Boston Street Lab, the aim of which is to breathe new life into underused spaces in downtown Boston.

The couple, who live in Chinatown with their two children, see empty lots and storefronts all around them as well as their potential for revival. For instance, they recently converted a vacant lot into a free, outdoor theater showing Chinese- language films.

They say their current effort, though temporary, is an experiment showing how a movable library can help revitalize dormant spaces in a neighborhood in tough economic times.

“Part of this is to have people come around the corner [onto Washington Street] in the evening and see something that they didn’t expect to see - children reading in a library,’’ said Sam Davol.

The library is not a long-term solution for the neighborhood. It will be open only from October to December. It is not a branch of the Boston Public Library, and patrons cannot borrow books, although they will be free to browse the collection and read in the store, said Leslie Davol.

Still, longtime champions of opening a neighborhood library - including members of the Chinese Progressive Association - say the storefront option will boost their cause.

“We see this as a tool to increase momentum,’’ said Lisette Le, who works at the association and is the coordinator of the Friends of the Chinatown Library, which has been pressing for a neighborhood branch. “It’s a chance to show the city that the Chinatown community and the residents really want to see a library here.’’

Chinatown had a branch library on Tyler Street for 40 years, before it closed in 1938. When the library shut down, school children protested, carrying placards that read “Closed Library - Closed Minds,’’ Sam Davol said.

The library reopened in 1951 as a reading room, but closed five years later when its Tyler Street building was demolished - along with other swaths of the neighborhood - to make way for the Central Artery.

In the 1960s, a bookmobile tried to fill the gap, but service was poor and it ultimately disappeared.

Eight years ago, local youths stepped up the library effort, and their movement got some traction.

Last year, the Boston Public Library completed a site study for a Chinatown branch. It plans to re-initiate talks when its finances improve.

In the meantime, the Davols are providing an immediate - if temporary - fix. As they prepare for opening day Oct. 15, they are urging the public to donate books, material, money, and their time. A website - www.storefrontlibrary.org - was launched to chronicle their effort.

So far, many people and groups have offered to help.

The Boston Public Library offered staff and advice on programs and operations. Simmons students developed library services. Real estate firm Archstone donated the storefront.

Harvard students designed the furnishings - seats, shelves, and computer work spaces. The students’ work is on exhibit at the Harvard Graduate School of design through the end of the month.

In addition, independent publisher Cheng & Tsu donated materials, including bilingual children’s books; the Chicopee library is offering materials; and local Chinese residents are lending their collections.

“In one case, someone has offered to forward her magazine subscription to be mailed directly to the library while it is open,’’ said Sam Davol.

“Very handy,’’ he added.

The new library will be located on Washington Street, next to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Its hours of operation will be 8 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.