“The old L.A. Public Library burned down/that library downtown/and with it went/a large part of my/youth.”

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

(Click to enlarge)

—Charles Bukowski

— this time from the bean counters — and, although Bukowski is dead, his old Hollywood bungalow figures into one of the stranger stories to come out of City Hall in a while, a tale about outraged citizens rising up and scoring a rare, feel-good victory over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his minions.

Only trouble is, the triumph may be largely a mirage, if some savvy observers are right. It might be just another case of a well-known and neatly orchestrated political gambit to stick it to the masses without their knowing it.

The drama involved a proposed $1 library-book fee to help the city cope with its staggering budget deficit, now tabulated at $406 million. The fee, if adopted, would have essentially destroyed the cherished notion of a free public library by forcing patrons to cough up a buck every time they special-ordered a book from another branch. In the sprawling Los Angeles Public Library system, a network of 72 mostly small outposts, transfers make up a good chunk of the 15 million books checked out annually, meaning lots of people were going to have to pay — or stop reading.

How the fee idea came about remains a mystery. No one wants to own up to such a bad idea now, though ostensibly it began with City Librarian Fontayne Holmes and staff. It won a very quiet preliminary endorsement in March from the Library Commission — all mayoral political appointees — before going to Villaraigosa and the City Council for review alongside a boatload of other fees and taxes now in the headlines.

The book levy caught the attention of bibliophiles, including Richard Schave, a 39-year-old Lincoln Heights tour operator and amateur historian. Schave and his wife, Kim Cooper, had fought to preserve the Union 76 “ball” — a classic example, they say, of gas-station Googie architecture — and then worked to get Bukowski’s former home on De Longpre Avenue in Hollywood declared a historic landmark. (See Matthew Fleischer's stories here and here.)

Perhaps serendipitously, at the same hearing where the Bukowski protective status was granted, Schave was horrified to hear council members blithely discussing a matter that would have appalled the iconic “poet laureate of Skid Row” — the proposed book charge.

“The fire was bad enough,” says Schave, alluding to the 1986 fire that Bukowski wrote about, which destroyed much of the spectacular downtown Main Branch library, which was later rebuilt. “This is like setting fire to the library again, intentionally, because they’re going to make more of the books inaccessible.”

Schave immediately blamed the man pushing hardest to raise fees and taxes — Villaraigosa. “The problem here,” he says, “is that the mayor has deluded himself into thinking that the library has to generate income. That’s the most absurd thing in the world. The library’s job is to be the library. Free ideas, free books are a cornerstone of mature, modern cultures.”

Many of America’s finest literary minds have been honed at the L.A. library, among them Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and Tennessee Williams, Schave says.

So he and Cooper decided to whip up a firestorm of their own, launching a save-the-library Web site — www.savelapl.org — aimed at putting pressure on Villaraigosa and the library administration.

It worked.

In scarcely a week, the site funneled more than 800 impassioned e-mails to the mayor and head librarian, many from single parents, the elderly and low-income readers. Last Friday, yielding to the onslaught, library commissioners abandoned the $1 fee in favor of raising the fines for overdue books — from a quarter to 30 cents.

“This really caught us by surprise,” library spokesman Peter Persic says of the backlash. “If we had anticipated this kind of sentiment on the part of the public, we never would have suggested the fee.”

If true, that’s quite a commentary on how out of touch L.A.’s politicians and bureaucrats really are with the concerns of the average citizen.

BUT SOME OBSERVERS, astute to the budget wars, say the dubious plan, so hastily scuttled, smacks of an age-old tactic known in some circles as a “Mount Rushmore” ploy. In short, politicians who want to raise taxes and fees float unbelievably obnoxious ideas they know will never fly, in order to make the real tax-hike proposals still to come seem palatable.

“In Washington, D.C., they call it the ‘Washington Monument syndrome,’” says Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and a former congressional aide. “Inside the Beltway, everyone knows it. What happens is, [elected officials] say, ‘We have to save money — let’s close the Washington Monument.’ It’s something very visible, so people say, ‘Oh, my God!’” Faced with the unspeakable, they are more inclined to agree to other taxes.

“It’s a lot of flim-flam,” Vosburgh says. “City Councils don’t say, ‘If you don’t agree to a tax increase, we won’t be able to cut the trees as often or wash down the sidewalks.’” Instead, they target something that people care much more passionately about — like library books. “These kinds of issues can be manipulated.”

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger exploited the tactic recently, threatening to close parks, Vosburgh says. Five years ago, then-Governor Gray Davis pulled the same stunt with — sound familiar? — a preposterous $5 charge for certain library books, sending newspaper editorial boards into a frenzy.

Elated when Mount Rushmore is not closed down, taxpayers more willingly fork over for things they thought they had already paid for: trash pickup, parking, golf-courses, park usage — the very areas where Villaraigosa plans to impose $90 million worth of hikes.

The mayor’s spokesman, Matt Szabo, stammered aloud when asked whether it was a Mount Rushmore strategy.

Finally, he managed, “I would question the relevance of that.” He says Villaraigosa’s only role was in asking that the proposed library fee be withdrawn.

“What we have here is a mayor posing a budget in the midst of a recession, which protects the core services of the city, which includes our public library,” Szabo says.

But Villaraigosa’s political priorities are elsewhere: big increases for police officers, fire protection and anti-gang efforts. (He also recently completed a costly two-and-a-half-year campaign to fill 800,000 potholes.)

But all the while, the library — one of the best places to keep kids out of trouble — has withered under budget cuts, and next year’s prospects are worse. The system has been unable to buy new books since February. The library has stopped renewing its subscriptions.

Those problems were just emerging when patrons became incensed by the proposed $1 book fee.

“My first reaction was just horror,” says playwright Mark Savage, 49, of Silver Lake. “Like, ‘What the fuck? Really?’ Charging a fee for the public library is just wrong. Penalties have always been a part of it, but the whole point of the public library is books free to the public.”

Savage, who always has books checked out, figures it would have cost him $10 a week. He learned of the save-the-library campaign through a Yahoo news group and immediately posted on a Yahoo site read by the small-theater crowd.

The speed at which word spread offered a glimpse into the city’s subculture of readers. Joelle Dobrow, president of the Edendale Library Friends Society in Echo Park and Silver Lake, heard of the fee when phoned by a library patron. Dobrow alerted her board, two neighborhood councils and friends. The Echo Park flurry prompted a post by blogger Jenny Burman, which further fueled Schave’s and Cooper’s determination to start their save-the-library Web site.

Cecil Castellucci, author of the young-adult novel The Queen of Cool, was e-mailed by a friendly librarian and started blogging on it. Teacher Katie Sobczak, who combs libraries for lesson plans, read about it at a coffee shop. Cindy Rosenthal of Brentwood overheard a conversation at her local branch. She e-mailed her grown daughters in San Francisco and San Diego, urging them to do something.

Word of the $1 fee’s demise spread just as quickly. Pyrrhic or not, readers were thrilled to share the triumph.

“My daughter in San Francisco e-mailed me and said, ‘Yeah, grass roots works!’” Rosenthal says.

“It’s incredible,” says Savage, the playwright. “There are so many things you feel powerless over, you don’t think things can end happily. I’d like to stop the war. I wonder if an e-mail campaign could work.”

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