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Love of a Good Read in Portland, Ore.

By Alexandra HardySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1997



PORTLAND, ORE.

In this city of incessant winter gloom, a dry spot and a good book are paramount.

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So it comes as no surprise that one day last month, more than 700 citizens - on buses, on bicycles, on foot - volunteered to carry 20,000 books from a temporary location to the newly renovated Multnomah County Central Library.

The great human transport, an 11-block move that traversed the city's trademark Park Blocks, took about three hours on a typical overcast Tuesday morning. That labor is expected to pay off April 8, when the 84-year-old Central Library reopens.

"I have never been anywhere where the public has taken such pride in their library," says library director Ginnie Cooper.

The bulk of the collection - roughly the weight of 200 grown elephants - must still be moved before the institution reopens.

Crews have worked on the $24.6 million renovation since 1994.

TransCentral Library, the building that functioned as a way station for the 1.4-million volume collection during renovation, closed its doors for good on the last day of February.

The move didn't save the struggling library system any money, as it turned out, but it symbolized the affinity Portlanders have for books.

Three out of 4 Multnomah County residents hold library cards. Many children get their first ones shortly after birth.

This is a city whose Tri-Met buses often resemble reading rooms. Whose cab drivers spend their down time with National Public Radio and a paperback. Whose bookstores, per capita, outnumber those in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Portland's downtown bookstores are a major attraction. One of them, the block-long icon known as Powell's Books, is so big that traversing its 1 million-volume new-and-used inventory requires a map, stacks of which can be found in the lobby.

Central Library's recent book transport followed a series of financial setbacks, the latest of which was a state property-tax-limit measure approved by Oregonians in November. Measure 47 is likely to cut $7 million from the library system's $25 million annual budget. Eight of the 14 branches may be closed.

Library officials point out that the majority of voters in Multnomah County voted against the measure. Perhaps they understood what the cuts could mean.

In the meantime, the library is expected to deliver a bonus next month.

When the improved Central opens, it will feature a cafe. For that, the historic downtown library awarded a contract to another Northwest institution: Starbucks.