SAN ANTONIO -- Texas has seen the future of the public library, and it looks a lot like an Apple (AAPL) Store: Rows of glossy iMacs beckon. iPads mounted on a tangerine-colored bar invite readers. And hundreds of other tablets stand ready for checkout to anyone with a borrowing card.
Even the librarians imitate Apple's dress code, wearing matching shirts and that standard-bearer of geek-chic, the hoodie. But this $2.3 million library might be most notable for what it does not have -- any actual books.
That makes Bexar County's BiblioTech the nation's only bookless public library, a distinction that has attracted scores of digital bookworms, plus emissaries from as far away as Hong Kong who want to learn about the idea and possibly take it home.
"I told our people that you need to take a look at this. This is the future," said Mary Graham, vice president of South Carolina's Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. "If you're going to be building new library facilities, this is what you need to be doing."
All-digital libraries have been on college campuses for years. But the county, which runs no other libraries, made history when it decided to open BiblioTech. It is the first bookless public library system in the country, according to information gathered by the American Library Association.
Similar proposals in other communities have been met with doubts. In California, the city of Newport Beach floated the concept of a bookless branch in 2011 until a backlash put stacks back in the plan. Nearly a decade earlier in Arizona, the Tucson-Pima library system opened an all-digital branch, but residents who said they wanted books ultimately got their way.
Graham toured BiblioTech in the fall and is pushing Charleston leaders for a bond measure in 2014 to fund a similar concept, right down to the same hip aesthetic reminiscent of Apple.
Except Apple Stores aren't usually found in parts of town like this. BiblioTech is on the city's economically depressed South Side and shares an old strip mall with a Bexar County government building. On a recent afternoon, one confused couple walked into the library looking for the justice of the peace.
San Antonio is the nation's seventh-largest city but ranks 60th in literacy, according to census figures. Back in the early 2000s, community leaders in Bibliotech's neighborhood of low-income apartments and thrift stores railed about not even having a nearby bookstore, said Laura Cole, BiblioTech's project coordinator. A decade later, Cole said, most families in the area still don't have wi-fi.
"How do you advance literacy with so few resources available?" she said.
Residents are taking advantage now. The library is on pace to surpass 100,000 visitors in its first year. Finding an open iMac among the four dozen at BiblioTech is often difficult after the nearby high school lets out, and about half of the facility's e-readers are checked out at any given time, each loaded with up to five books. One of BiblioTech's regulars is a man teaching himself Mandarin.
Head librarian Ashley Elkholf came from a traditional Wisconsin high school library and recalled the scourges of her old job: misshelved items hopelessly lost in the stacks, pages thoughtlessly ripped out of books and items that went unreturned by patrons who were unfazed by measly fines and lax enforcement.
But in the nearly four months since BiblioTech opened, Elkholf has yet to lend out one of her pricey tablets and never see it again. The space is also more economical than traditional libraries despite the technology: BiblioTech purchases its 10,000-title digital collection for the same price as physical copies, but the county saved millions on architecture because the building's design didn't need to accommodate printed books.
"If you have bookshelves, you have to structure the building so it can hold all of that weight," Elkholf said. "Books are heavy, if you've ever had one fall on your foot."
Up the road in Austin, for example, the city is building a downtown library to open in 2016 at a cost of $120 million. Even a smaller traditional public library that recently opened in nearby suburban Kyle cost that city about $1 million more than BiblioTech.
On her first visit, 19-year-old Abigail Reyes was only looking for a quiet space to study for an algebra exam. But she got a quick tutorial from a librarian on how to search for digital books and check out tablets before plopping down on a row of sleek couches.
"I kind of miss the books," Reyes said. "I don't like being on the tablets and stuff like that. It hurts my eyes."
Across the room, Rosemary Caballeo tried shopping for health insurance on a set of computers reserved for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. Her restless 2-year-old ran around and pawed at a row of keyboards. The little girl shrieked loudly, shattering the main room's quiet. She was soon whisked outside by her father.
After all, it's still a library.