DEL MAR — As the San Diego County Library system celebrates its 100th year, the Del Mar branch is marking an almost-centennial milestone of its own.
In 1914, the tiny library opened in a strip mall that is now Del Mar Plaza. That same year, just a few blocks away, St. James Catholic Church began serving parishioners that, at one time, included Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante.
No one would have guessed 99 years ago the house of worship at 1309 Camino del Mar would one day become the house of books.
After the church relocated to Solana Beach, the building was sold and became a restaurant in 1966. A few decades later it was home to an insurance company before the city bought it for the library, which, at the time, was located in the trailer that is now City Hall Annex.
Books, periodicals and patrons were officially welcomed in 1996. Through the years the library has undergone a few more transformations, however, the original church lights still hang from the ceiling.
Many may recall an open patio on the south side of the building, which was designed “with a vision of people sitting outside reading in the ocean breeze,” Pat Freeman, president of Friends of the Del Mar Library, said.
“That’s a great visual but in reality it didn’t work,” Freeman said. “Birds pooped on it, the street was noisy and kicked up dust and car fumes and the ocean breezes were sometimes gale winds.”
When the old roof needed to be replaced to comply with new laws, a decision was made to enclose the patio at the same time. That project was completed nearly five years ago and the new room is now used for everything from baby yoga and Zumba classes to Homework Helpers, bridge and Friends of the Del Mar Library meetings, making it obvious this is not your grandparents’ library.
The most recent project — a collaboration between local artists Pat Welsh and Betsy Schulz — was upgrading the concrete wall that faces Camino del Mar. The mural was constructed using brick, terra cotta tile, black rocks and found objects that include railroad spikes, horseshoes and a piece of the Berlin Wall
The facility has also “e-volved” to keep pace with ever-changing technology. Although a library card is still needed to check out books, the system is automated and patrons can now download e-books.
“One of the biggest changes is the library is now a place to come to use your computer,” Freeman said. “There are lots to use here but people bring their own because there’s free Wi-Fi and it’s quiet and pleasant.”
Programs offered at the Del Mar Library are as varied as the titles on the shelves. There is baby-lap story time, with age-appropriate games and songs for 6- to 18-month-olds. Preschoolers can enjoy story times, crafts and magic.
For Tweens there is Prodigy Players, a children’s play featuring two fractured fairy tales, and science classes.
Teen programs include books talks with treats, art classes and Homework Helpers, during which Torrey Pines High School students provide assistance to students in preschool through grade seven.
For teens and adults the library offers nutrition and cooking information, art and foreign language lessons.
Family activities include Love on a Leash, which allows youngsters to improve their skills by reading to therapy dogs, and Saturday family films.
And of course there are the tomes. Because it is part of the county library system, the Del Mar branch has access to millions of books, magazines and newspapers that can be checked out and returned to any one of the 33 branches.
Friends of the Del Mar Library helps keep the latest and most popular books available by purchasing them with the guarantee that they remain at the facility for six months before becoming part of the general county collection.
In addition to buying books, Friends of the Del Mar Library has provided financial support for nearly every aspect of the facility, including raising money for construction upgrades, funding programs and purchasing furnishings.
“We support whatever the library does,” said Freeman, who has been with the group since its inception in 1982.
Freeman is especially proud of “The Wave,” a statue by James Hubbell that was donated to the library and has sat at the entrance since 1996.
The Del Mar Library is run by five full- and part-time employees and more than 20 volunteers.
“We couldn’t do anything without our volunteers,” librarian Gretchen Schmidt said. “They’re essential to our operation.”
Ninety-nine years later, with myriad free books, programs and lessons, the library remains one of the best deals in town. Books can be checked out for three weeks at a time and renewed 50 times unless someone else is waiting to check out a title.
Youngsters can settle an overdue penalty by “reading off” their fines in 30-minute intervals. Adults, although they have tried, can’t participate in that program, but they can catch a break on Fine-Free Fridays.
To help honor the county’s 100th anniversary, Del Mar scheduled a centennial celebration June 13 that was to include music by acoustic guitarist KEV, refreshments and remarks by Supervisor Dave Roberts, Del Mar Mayor Terry Sinnott and José Aponte, director of the San Diego County Library.