Sara Robert grew up with her nose in a book at the River Heights Library.
"I was not a super-outgoing or athletic kid growing up," she says. "Reading, that was my passion, that’s what I loved to do."
When she was 10, she won a summer reading contest at the library. The prize was any book she wanted. Robert’s favourite author at the time was Roald Dahl, but she’d read almost everything he’d written — save for Esio Trot, which the library special-ordered for her from the U.K. The book was signed by then-mayor Bill Norrie. "Which was very cool when you were a 10-year-old," she says.
Now, in a full-circle moment 30 years later, the new Bill and Helen Norrie Library at 15 Poseidon Bay is opening in the neighbourhood this weekend, and the old River Heights Library that Robert, now 40, took refuge in as a young bookworm has permanently closed as of March 13. The shelves are empty, the windows are dark.
Robert still has her signed book, by the way. When the library closed, she dug it out to show her nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son. Robert moved back to River Heights as an adult to raise her own family.
"I think a gathering place is really important for community, and that’s what builds your community — and there are so many of them here," Robert says of the neighbourhood. "I was really excited to take my kids to this library when we moved back here and have them experience the kids’ area in the basement that I got to go to when I was growing up.
"The thing that I miss the most about the library — which is ironic, because it’s one of the things that necessitated the new build — is walking down the stairs to the basement, and the anticipation of turning the corner and being able to see everything when you walk through that doorway," she says, adding that she’s glad the new library will be accessible to everyone.
The River Heights Library opened in 1961 on Corydon Avenue between Brock and Cordova, to replace the popular Waterloo-Corydon bookmobile stop. (People still have fond memories of that, too; one Free Press reader recalls it was like having a birthday every Friday when the bookmobile arrived.)
For the next 60 years, that library would serve generations of River Heights residents — including me. I remember feeling very grown up when I got my own library card, legitimized by my wobbly signature. It was a passport into a world of new stories, ideas, adventures, characters. For a book-a-night reader, having a library I could walk or ride my bike to felt lucky indeed.
Jon Waldman, 41, is a lifelong River Heights resident who, like Robert, grew up going to the River Heights Library, where he read The Adventures of Tintin and hockey books and learned a thing or two about responsibility in the form of overdue fines.
Now, he’s a writer and author himself. "There’s a certain sense of pride when I saw my books in the library for the first time," he says.
Waldman’s forthcoming book, Swimming Aimlessly, is about his journey through infertility. In 2015, shortly after Waldman and his wife Elana gave birth to a daughter after six years of struggle, they had a Halloween party at the River Heights Library with a few of the couples they met in a support group.
"The four of us ended up having babies within a matter of weeks," he says. It was a special, hard-won moment, and the library was the backdrop.
While many River Heights residents are sad about losing this little neighbourhood gem — its central location made it eminently walkable — most are excited about the fact a new, more accessible one is opening.
Robert believes a library is just as essential to a vibrant community as rec centres, playgrounds and outdoor rinks. She’s thankful she had a place to curl up with a good book when she was young.
"I find that a lot of our gathering spaces as a community are activity-based — they’re for the kids who want to be the next NHL star or the next world-class gymnast," she says. "And it’s so important to have a home for the kids who want to exercise their brains and creativity, not just their muscles."