When the beloved Capitola Book Café closed its doors five years ago, Gayle Ortiz—the namesake master baker and entrepreneur behind Gayle’s Bakery, and a former mayor—was, like many of her neighbors, distraught. Looking for something from the bookstore to save, she zeroed in on the paintings on the wall. She proposed a deal with the Book Café’s owners about the art.
“I told them, ‘If I could guarantee you that it would go into the new Capitola Library, whenever it’s built, would you give it to the city of Capitola?’” remembers Ortiz. “And they said, ‘If we can be guaranteed that, sure.’”
Sometime in the summer of 2020, Ortiz is poised to deliver on her promise. The paintings from the Book Café are now part of the renderings of the new Capitola Library, which means that from the first day of its opening next summer, the new library will already contain meaningful cultural DNA linking it to its community.
Ortiz was one of the many champions of the Capitola Library, a $15.1 million project now under construction on the same site as the former Capitola Branch Library, on the corner of Clares Street and Wharf Road.
It represents the largest capital project that the city of Capitola has ever undertaken. It also puts Capitola at the forefront of a public-library renaissance.
The Capitola Library is the design work of the Berkeley-based architectural firm Noll & Tam, which has designed many of Northern California’s new public libraries, including the recently opened Half Moon Bay Library, which earlier this year won a national design award from the American Institute of Architects.
The old Capitola Library was essentially two mobile units fused together. Though it will occupy roughly the same footprint, the new library will look nothing like the old one. “It’s going to be beautiful,” says Susan Nemitz, the director of the county’s library system, which includes Capitola, “and almost unrecognizable.”
At one time, the public library was considered one of many familiar institutions that would be upended, maybe to the point of extinction, by the digital revolution. But the library has repurposed itself and, in many communities, has found a thriving role to fill in the new economy.
“The new wave of libraries aren’t these reading rooms of quiet anymore,” says Nemitz. “They’re learning spaces.” Libraries have become community centers, a dependable and safe place for kids and a reliable touchstone for adults. They have become, say their advocates, an antidote to the atomizing effects of anonymous online culture: a place to engage with your local community.
What new libraries are not—and this includes the new Capitola Library—is a warehouse for old books. Christopher Noll, one of the partners at Noll & Tam, and a designer of the Capitola project, says that the public library now has a different orientation to books. “The idea of these eight-foot-tall shelves stacked from top to bottom with books” is over, he says, calling the old paradigm “oppressive.”
“We want open, airy, light-filled spaces for people to sit,” he explains.
Like many new libraries, Capitola will have dedicated spaces for kids, teens and adults. At 11,700 square feet, it will have spaces that can be easily adapted for meetings, events and presentations. It will also have homework rooms, an outdoor patio, even a reading room with a working fireplace. But much of the new library’s space, says Noll, will be vertical.
“We spent a little extra to get a high ceiling,” he says. “High ceilings allow more natural light, more room for that light to bounce around. It saves energy on lighting, it’s a better kind of light, healthier for people. And high ceilings give you a sense of grandeur. It’s a way of saying this isn’t a house, it’s something else. It’s a way to uplift your spirits.”
Noll says that modern library design has put to rest the clichéd image of the shushing librarian. Though the new library will contain quiet spots for reading, “libraries are generally getting much more noisy and active.”
The idea of the public library has gotten a new currency thanks to a suddenly popular 2018 book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg called Palaces for the People. (Among its many fans is Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg). In the book, Klinenberg explores “social capital”—the face-to-face, interpersonal relationships within a given community—and celebrates public libraries as the primary conduit that holds together many communities. Noll says the design principles of his firm are in the spirit of what Klinenberg is talking about.
The opening of the Capitola Library in 2020 will continue a curious trend from the perspective of its neighboring city to the west. Santa Cruz is now ringed by communities that have all opened spacious new-model libraries in the last decade, including Half Moon Bay, Los Gatos, Scotts Valley, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and Watsonville. Yet Santa Cruz, home to the region’s largest bookstore and university, still operates from a downtown branch on Church Street, first opened more than 50 years ago.
Santa Cruz has wrestled with the idea of a new library for years, and currently, the Santa Cruz City Council has empaneled a subcommittee of three—councilmembers Justin Cummings, Sandy Brown and Donna Meyers—to explore options and present a report by October. The City Council will likely have to choose between building a state-of-the-art library coupled with a controversial parking garage and doing a partial remodel of the existing facility.
The downtown branch has few fans. Architect Chris Noll calls it “awful,” and Nemitz says that it’s “shabby.”
“People get angry when I say that,” says Nemitz, “but Santa Cruz’s public libraries are shabby.” The opening of the gleaming new branch in Capitola might represent a revelation for many in Santa Cruz, she says.
“Because Santa Cruz hasn’t consistently invested in libraries, there are a lot of people in this community who have never really been in a 21st-century facility,” says Nemitz, who arrived in Santa Cruz in 2016. “My first meeting with the City Council, someone asked, ‘Well, what’s wrong with the downtown library?’ I was so surprised by the question, I didn’t answer it well. Everything is wrong with the downtown library. It’s like people who buy a house with a crack in the ceiling—three months later they don’t even notice it. People are accustomed to what they already have. But I think when Capitola opens, everybody [in Santa Cruz] is going to say, ‘Hey, we want that too.’”