Times Past

SLO County library’s bookmobile was an adventure on wheels

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

Bookmobiles in San Luis Obispo County, like other technologies for distributing information, have gone the way of the Sony Walkman.

The county library system operated a bookmobile for more than 30 years, reaching out to mobile home parks and remote locations as far away as California Valley.

Before the retirement of the bookmobile, associate library director Marjory Johnson interviewed key figures involved with its history.

In 1972, the library acquired a bookmobile. It had its comedic aspects from the time of delivery. Then-library director Dale Perkins recalls: “We had an asphalt driveway, and the bookmobile was so heavy it sunk into the ground and we had to put in a thick concrete pad for it to rest on.”

Bookmobile driver Morgan Philbin, who was 6 feet, 8 inches tall and had just returned from service as a military policeman in Vietnam, said:

“There is a little more to that asphalt story. I had been asking for some time for that concrete pad. After Dale and I spent an hour or so digging the bookmobile out of the mud, the money magically appeared.”

Dale also remembers the time Morgan picked up a man and deposited him in a nearby dumpster.

“Yes, that was me on the dumpster story,” Morgan said. “The bookmobile used to stay in Pismo Beach until 9 p.m. on Tuesdays. That was in the heyday of the old Rose Garden Ballroom.

“Some punker in a pretty wasted condition came on the truck and grabbed a 14-year-old girl by the breast. I had a frank but firm discussion with the clown, and he was on the ground ‘resting.’ I didn’t want him to get away, so I tossed him in a dumpster by the old Foodway Market and drove around till I spotted a police sergeant and let him know the miscreant’s disposition.

“Most of my bookmobile stories are about breakdowns. The 1972 bookmobile truck wasn’t very reliable. The first law of the bookmobile was that the farther you were away from civilization, the more likely a breakdown.

“Coworker Lilly Grabil and I were somewhere in northeast county in the summer heat when the starter blew. I tried to push it to the nearest slope, and Lilly tried to steer. Poor Lilly, trying to steer that truck and stop at the base of a downslope with no power.

“The Sheriff’s Department saw themselves as a force for law and order in the community. And I saw them as a source of spare parts. After being passed by a bicyclist going up Cuesta Grade, I noticed a wrecked sheriff’s patrol car in the county garage lot.

“It was just after Proposition 13, and there were only two mechanics in the lot, so I wandered over and switched the manifolds and carburetor. With the nice, new four-barrel carb, I was 10 to 15 mph faster over the grade.”

Following Lily’s retirement, Morgan rode alongside Judi Horner, a great nature lover.

“Judi and I were on the back roads in the North County when she yells at me to pull over,” Morgan recalled. “I pulled the truck over, and she jumped out the door and through a fence. I tried to see what she was doing, and found she was trying to get a closer look at a mountain lion. It scared the hell out of me!”

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The San Luis Obispo Friends of the Library giant book sale is Thursday through Saturday at the SLO Veterans Memorial Building, 801 Grand Ave., with free parking on site.

A members-only sale will be held 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, so bring your membership card or pay $10 at the door. Admission is free for the sale on Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

There will be wonderful volunteers to help you pick perfect, “gently used” books and carry them to your car for you.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.