Cambrian: Slice of Life

Fond farewell to SLO County's Bookmobile

Joan Warner, left, driver, and Lily Grabil, Bookmobile attendant, in 1972 or early 1973.
Joan Warner, left, driver, and Lily Grabil, Bookmobile attendant, in 1972 or early 1973. Courtesy photo

Last Saturday was a melancholy day for nostalgic readers in far-flung neighborhoods of San Luis Obispo County. It marked the end of an era.

According to the county library’s website, May 31 was the swan song for the system’s esteemed Bookmobile service. After more than 40 years of taking all kinds of books into the hinterlands, the rolling lending libraries were off the road for good.

Gradually, the Bookmobile’s service route had grown ever smaller. Some former destinations have their own brick-and-mortar libraries now, and many people are reading or listening to books on their Kindles, iPads, smartphones and other devices.

The Tanners have one of each, and I read on all of them. But more often, I read regular books, periodicals and newspapers, along with the backs of cereal boxes, maps, environmental impact reports, instruction manuals (BO-ring!) — even junk mail and the March 2001 People magazine in the doctor’s office.

The county’s latest Bookmobile vehicle, according to library sources, was apparently not as mobile as it needed to be. The aging van is in such bad mechanical shape that it could no longer grind its way up Cuesta Grade from the restocking hub of the City-County Library in San Luis Obispo.

Bookmobile problems on the Grade are nothing new, according to retired librarian Morgan Philbin, who spent more than a decade wheeling through the county in the vehicle (and maintaining it). He said he remembers being on the Grade one day in a previous Bookmobile vehicle, “and I got passed by a guy on a bicycle.”

I suspect the county isn’t replacing the Bookmobile because — well, because of all of the above, plus it’s expensive to fuel, insure and maintain.

We understand, but we’re sad.

Cambrians are fervent library users, a passion embodied in our fantastic, larger new facility paid for jointly by the county and so many donations to the determined Friends of the Cambria Library group.

But there was always something special and vaguely mysterious about climbing into the Bookmobile’s rather dark interior — after all, where a normal bus has windows, a mobile library has shelves, packed with all those books.

The Bookmobile’s arrival in town was somewhat akin to the scene in “Music Man,” with everybody cheering as the Wells Fargo wagon wheeled in, bringing mail and packages.

In Cambria, the Bookmobile excitement would build. What would be on the shelves this time? What new and exciting topics were waiting for us? Did the assortment include that new book by a favorite author?

Oh, the anticipation was delicious.

Then and now, our family regularly checked out one or two dozen books at a time. Our current selection ranges from cookbooks and mysteries to a coffee-table book of giraffe photos and “I Just Graduated Now What?”

We’ll lug them all back in one of our many book bags — perhaps the one that Philbin and fellow librarian Lily Grabil gave to my compulsive-reader mother, Andy Herrington, soon after the service began in 1972.

“When I first started picking out books for people,” Philbin recalled, “Andy taught me how to figure someone out, what’d they’d like in books, how to associate one author with another. You learn a lot on that job, a lot about people and literature. It was the best job I ever had.”

Kristin Barnhart, a former Cambria librarian, remembers “Lily’s terrier fierceness” in defending her books, her patrons and her library, along with “the loyalty the patrons had” for Lily and Morgan, “especially Andy and Agnes Bolendar,” the Bookmobile’s most devoted advocates and users.

In fact, according to former county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, it was my mother’s relentless nagging that prompted librarians to bring the Bookmobile to Cambria in the first place.

One wonders what will happen to the venerable vehicle. According to Christopher Barnickel, director of libraries for the county, the Bookmobile is “being retired as it no longer meets emissions requirements. It will go to public auction later this year.”

But if someone buys it, then what? It’s a bit large for a lawn ornament, and not appropriate for a rancher-style junkyard. Will it be sent to a state with lower emissions standards, or given a dignified retirement as a permanent, non-mobile mini-branch somewhere?

Whatever’s in the Bookmobile’s future, it isn’t in ours. And, yes, that’s sad.