OAKLAND -- If you want to catch up on your summer reading but don't have a library card, volunteers at Oakland's newest (unofficial) library branch will be happy to help. No paperwork, no due date. As an organizer posted on Twitter, "Your soul is your library card at #peopleslibrary."
After all, it's anyone's guess how long the renegade operation will stay open.
Around 7 a.m. Monday, activists took over a vacant building in East Oakland's San Antonio neighborhood, which they said had been left unlocked. After word spread on Facebook, about a dozen volunteers arrived and set to work, stocking it with donated books and clearing out grime, old mattresses, graffiti and other markings of abandonment. A bilingual banner hanging in front of the entrance at 1449 Miller Ave. welcomed passers-by to the "Victor Martinez People's Library," named for the late Latino author.
Decades ago, the building housed an official city library, an ornate space with built-in wooden bookshelves and high ceilings decorated with molding. Completed in 1918, it was one of four branches funded with a Carnegie grant. But that branch closed in the 1970s, and since then, the building has sat mostly unused, said Jaime Silva, one of the organizers. Squatters and illegal dumping have turned the property into an eyesore, he said.
"I think everyone in the community is psyched this will no longer be a dumping ground," said Silva, 43.
The building is owned by the City of Oakland's Redevelopment Successor Agency within the Office of Neighborhood Investment. In an email Monday, an agency spokesman said the city would issue a dispersal order with a set time to vacate the property; his response didn't include the city's plans for the blighted building, which remains in disrepair.
Late Monday morning, people began trickling in. Some checked out books, shared their ideas, or asked how they could help.
"You open Monday through Friday?" one man asked a volunteer.
"We have no idea," the volunteer responded.
Goldie Simmons of San Leandro, whose husband is the pastor of the nearby Agnes Memorial Church, said she and her husband had proposed that city officials turn the building into a youth center, but that they were told it needed to be retrofitted. She said she was glad people had taken matters into their own hands.
"There's nothing in this area, really," she said. "There's really no place for kids to come."
Silva and other activists say the goal is for the building to be used for a community purpose, whether it's a library or a community center with a garden.
"All we ask is that you consider keeping it out of the hands of a city which will only seal the fence and doors again, turning the space back into an aggregator of the city's trash and a dark hole in the middle of the community," according to the group's news release, aimed at residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Organizers planned an event for Monday evening -- a 6 p.m. potluck dinner, followed by a poetry reading. They said they didn't know how they planned to maintain a presence at the building, or whether anyone would spend the night there.
The Rev. Robert Holt, pastor of the First New Jerusalem Mission Baptist Church on 24th Avenue and Foothill, said he hoped the effort would evolve into something lasting and fruitful, rather than a brief act of protest.
"If they're going to do it, I'd like to see it be done right," Holt said. "This area needs something that's going to impact the community, that's going to change lives, that's going to uplift the people -- especially the youth," he said.