Published in The Vacaville Reporter

Vacaville’s Carnegie building, past and present

May 27, 2023

More than a half-century after the Vacaville Library left its Carnegie building downtown, residents can have a glass of wine, a mixed drink or beer with their book in the 108-year-old building.

Vacaville’s Carnegie building, past and present

Late last year, the Journey Coffee Company formally opened up the renovated Carnegie building as “The Library,” an evening venue offering wine, spirits, beer and pizza where patrons can also browse through bookcases filled with books if they choose, thanks to Journey Coffee Company owners Morne and Nicole Van Staden.

It is the latest evolution for the building whose roots go all the way back to the 1850s.

The earliest form of a library in Vacaville was a small circulating library of religious and technical publications in J. W. Anderson’s Ulatis Academy, which started in the 1850s. In the 1880s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union opened a reading room on Main Street.

After a decade of effort, the Ulatis Book Club established a reading room and circulating library which was financed with membership fees. It started in 1900 with 84 members and 137 volumes. It lasted 10 years and provided the foundation for establishing a larger library.

In 1905, local residents started a campaign to get a $5,000 grant from the Carnegie Library Building Fund, but a dispute over where the library would be built delayed matters for five years until the Saturday Club took over the Ulatis Book Club and established a committee to take charge of library planning.

The club did open a free public library with 500 volumes in a small room on the corner of Main and Dobbins streets in 1912. At the same time, the club also successfully pushed to get voters to approve a library district which allowed the imposition of a 5-cent property tax for library maintenance and new purchases.

One group of residents wanted the proposed Carnegie library built at the high school, but library trustees settled on land on the southeast corner of Main and Parker streets. The lot was purchased in 1914 for $3,000.00. The previous lot was used as an area for locals to leave their horses and wagons while they shopped downtown.

Local resident George Sharpe was awarded the contract to build it and the Classical Revival reinforced concrete building was finished in six months. Some sources list Sharpe as the architect, while another source states it was L.M. Turton.

It was opened on July 17, 1915, with a 400-book collection and was nicknamed “Esther’s Library,” after Sharpe’s daughter, Esther Eldridge, who became the librarian in 1945 and remained until her retirement 20 years later.

The downstairs was home to the children’s’ library while the main floor “was where the checkout was, and the rest of everything else was just books, books, books,” said Vacaville resident Marie Brown at the 100-year celebration of the library building.

Ellen Porter-Cheechov, now a Vacaville librarian, was in seventh grade when she went to the Carnegie Library.

She remembered the downstairs children’s section as “dark” and dungeon-like, and Eldridge as a librarian who asked the seventh-grader “shouldn’t you be in the children’s section” whenever Porter-Cheechov ventured upstairs to the adult books area.

The children’s library section was opened in the early 1950s. It included librarian Ernestine Newton, who started as children’s librarian in 1953. She prolifically wrote a news column in the Vacaville Reporter where she answered children’s questions, reviewed children’s books and broke news on upcoming events.

In an August 1965 interview, she said that “youngsters are quite conscientious about turning back (books) on time, more so than adults.” Children could take out up to six books at a time “and if they are good about bringing them back on time, we upped the limit to nine or ten.”

The library became cramped by the 1960s and a $335,000 bond was passed in June 1968 to build a new facility. The library moved to larger quarters in the Vacaville City Government complex in October 1970. The Carnegie building was sold off in 1971 for $35,100 to Vacaville resident Thomas Garcia to help pay for furnishing the new library facility.

Oct. 3, 1970, was moving day for the library. A group of civic leaders put out the call for volunteers who showed up with a small fleet of pick-up trucks to haul approximately 30,000 books to the new location.

The former Carnegie Library today, which has been home to many businesses throughout the years. (Courtesy photo, Vacaville Heritage Council)

At that time, local historical preservationist Arthur Dietz, of the Vacaville Heritage Council, unsuccessfully tried to get the building turned into a museum. He was opposed by local merchants such as adjacent theater owner William Crosby, who stated in the Vacaville Reporter that the site “was a key parcel of land for future commercial development.”

Garcia described his plans for redeveloping the building in the March 19,1970 Vacaville Reporter as “creating a mini-Ghirardelli Square.”

It became home to such businesses as Toby’s House of Fashion, The Library Antique Shop and The Old Library Restaurant, and later, a comic book/game store named “The Game Warden,” where this writer met his future wife.

Resident E. Diane Little described the restaurant as “a swanky place” which she liked dining at because of its atmosphere and camaraderie, Little said in a Vacaville Reporter story of the building’s 100th  anniversary.

Garcia sold the building in 1981 to an investment group headed by a local accountant named Mark Boler, according to a Vacaville Reporter news story.

In time, it was recognized as a significant part of the Main Street Historic District and was bought by the city’s redevelopment agency.

The building then became the home for the Solano County Farm Bureau and the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce until the chamber moved to new quarters on Dobbins Street and East Monte Vista. The adjacent Deville Theater owner had expressed interest in the building in 2014, but nothing came of that.

It stayed vacant for several years, eventually becoming home to an outlet of the Sonoma Springs Brewing Company which never really made a success of itself.

Then, Morne and Nicole Van Staden opened Journey Downtown in the Theater Deville next door and took an interest in the Carnegie Library.

Their July 2022 purchase of the library became the latest expansion of the company that started as a coffee truck at the Premium Outlets. In 2015, they did well enough to open a permanent location in Alamo Plaza.

Three years later, they opened a second location on Chadbourne Road in Fairfield. Since then, two more locations opened, one in the Theater Deville (which had closed in 2014) and the other on One Lake Drive south of Vacaville.

“I wanted to make it a place for people to come, to hang out and build community,” Morne Van Staden said of his goal for the library.

The interior was remodeled with a bar, furniture, bookshelves and an estimated 5,000 books which were not only donated by local residents, but also San Francisco Bay Area people such as the widow of a University of California, Berkeley professor who donated classic music and history library.

The Library formally opened its doors in mid-November, but informally made itself during the summer for “Pizza With a Purpose” events which raised money for local non-profits.

Morne Van Staden estimated at least $50,000 was raised and created “a tradition that we want to continue doing.”

The Library is presently open Thursdays through Sunday evenings.

Its future possibilities include offering more live music, “an open format for community members to share their talents,” Morne Van Staden said. Event rentals, a story time during the day for children, and educational workshops on beer, wine and spirit-making.

“It’s all about making it a space for the community,” Morne Van Staden said.