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Lend Me Your Ear 

Building a community in the Presidio, book by book

Wednesday, Nov 27 2002
The man who calls himself the mayor of Baker Beach, Michael Warner, invites me to sit down in the lending library, a parking spot in the open-fronted garage that runs the length of his apartment building. It's mid-October, and a huge golden sun suspended on plywood, 7 feet wide and smiling, leans against the structure, partially covering the entrance to the space. Inside, on the concrete floor, are a couple of slightly ratty padded chairs, some frayed rugs, a guitar, a few computers, and books -- lots and lots of books. On wooden shelves, piled on a desk, and stacked on the ground are about 1,000 titles, everything from modern novels to parapsychology tomes to Powers of Ten. Though the wind blows in occasionally from the rest of the carport, the library feels cozy.

Warner has had to park his red Geo Tracker -- hand-painted, Burning Man-style, with double helixes, "Phoenician" text, and wild colors -- in the open lot outside. But he doesn't mind, because the lending library was his idea. He set it up to bring attention to the lack of community in the area, and particularly in the Baker Beach Apartments, a group of 50 buildings with more than 400 units at the western edge of the Presidio. The Baker Beach Apartments are themselves nothing to look at -- boxy, maroon-and-white dwellings flanking a side street off Lincoln Boulevard -- but their setting is extraordinary. Surrounded by trees on three sides and overlooking the entrance to Baker Beach, one of the prettiest stretches of public seashore in the city, the location is heaven for a biker and hiker like Warner. There are advantages to living at the former military post -- ocean views and beach access among them -- but proximity to a full range of urban amenities is not one of them.

Warner's title of "mayor" is obviously somewhat bogus; the so-called Mayor's Council is an ad hoc group of Presidio residents who volunteer to bring community concerns to the Presidio Trust, the public-private governmental agency that manages most of the recreation area's buildings. There are several mayors; Warner is the endearingly kooky one, and everyone on the west side of the Presidio seems to know him.

The apartment complex draws a mix of people from across the city and country. As Warner puts it, "No one here is from here." There's something about the rugged beauty of the area that entices out-of-towners, and something about its isolated nature that attracts loners. Warner himself arrived in 1999 to work at various start-ups, and now runs a 3-D data-analysis company he founded. The tenants of the Baker Beach Apartments don't usually interact much, but around 20 neighbors joined Warner in September to lug donated furniture, PCs, and reading material into the garage. No one expected anyone to sit down there and read -- it is a carport -- but folks gathered to flip through paperbacks, sign books out for later perusal, and chat. (You can talk as loud as you like in this library.) Warner and the Baker Beach crew wanted a place to hang out, and the first thing that came to mind was a room full of books. In most neighborhoods, they would have gone to a bar rather than a library. Here, going to a bar means driving down to Geary.

It's easy to take libraries for granted. We forget that they're places to gather, to meet and get informed and exchange ideas, rather than just repositories of data to be harvested. Warner's lending library might be nothing more than one man's attempt to get to know his neighbors. But his efforts to gather the collection (and to keep it intact, when the complex's management booted it out of the garage) seem to say something more. Here's a guy who gave up his parking spot, left his own property in an open garage for strangers to use and borrow, and pissed off a semigovernmental agency -- in other words, stuck his neck way out -- just to have an intelligent place to shoot the shit with folks who live in his apartment building. While it's odd to think that an activity as solitary as reading can bring people together, it's even odder to imagine sticking one's neck out for a library.

Warner, a lanky 32-year-old in a retro-hipster jacket and granola-crunchy shoes, is both consummate politician and hopeless dreamer. (His liberal arts degree focused on quantum theory and ancient Greek philosophy; he's worked for Sun Microsystems and USAID.) With shaggy blond hair and a smile that's simultaneously sweet and sad, he looks like a young Timothy Hutton as he rattles off his plans for a "Wi-Fi" (aka wireless) network, among several other projects. While we sat in the carport together early last month, he lured one neighbor after another into the lending library, calling out to each of them by name. He knows their interests and draws them out, while working in about 10 directions at once on his own.

The collection of books hadn't been in Warner's parking spot for long when he got the first in a series of letters from the John Stewart Co., which manages the Baker Beach Apartments for the Presidio Trust, asking him to clean it up by Oct. 18. So he went into action on several fronts: He started talking to the company and the trust about taking over an abandoned laundry room in another building to use as a library. He applied for a film permit to use a crumbling Presidio building as a set -- and maybe move his community center there. (He even contacted OSHA to see if the building could be salvaged, if not to house the collection then maybe to hold raves.) While he waited for answers, he thought about dropping the books off "on the steps of the trust" or maybe even burning them in protest, but in the end he gave some away, moved the others into a storage space, and closed the carport library.

Finally, at the end of October, the trust granted Warner a permit to use the laundry room -- and just in time. As Ron Sonenshine in the public affairs department of the trust said when I reached him during the negotiations over the carport, "I'd hate to be down there when the rainy season comes." (Representatives of the John Stewart Co. referred me to Sonenshine.) Though he hadn't met Warner at the time, he seemed grudgingly impressed by Warner's tenacity, sounding both bemused and irritated when referring more than once to "the so-called lending library."

The deal is simple: For a $150 deposit and $150 per month, Warner gets a 210-square-foot area next to a crawl space. "It has a great window," Warner says, "with a great view of the ocean." While the trust cleans the room in preparation for opening the doors on Dec. 1, Warner and his cohorts are pricing insurance and collecting donations (they have about $900 and 4,000 books so far). Given that the previous lending library collected all of $3 in a donation jar ("Maybe we'll spend it on a space heater," Warner suggested one cold October day), that this new incarnation can get off the ground is something of a miracle. The goal is to make the library self-sustaining, maybe by charging an annual membership fee of $20 -- or perhaps by selling coffee. (The nearest cafe is on Clement; the nearest library, the "Presidio" branch on Sacramento and Baker, isn't even within the Presidio grounds.)

The new lending library may stay open as planned, or it may not; it might sustain itself, or it might just fade away as an idea that didn't quite work. It's hard to tell when talking to Mike Warner, because a conversation with him is like talking to four people at the same time. (Another of the many Baker Beach mayors mentions admiring Warner's "vibrant energy" but also describes him as "a ranting Jack Kerouac character," said with some measure of respect.) As Warner himself admits, "I'm on to other things." Whether he and his neighbors continue to get together to talk about books is anyone's guess, though it seems likely. Regardless of this specific library's future, the seeds of community have been planted, in a neighborhood Warner describes as "deep space." If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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