walmart-1The fortunes of big-box stores rise and fall. Ever optimistic, retail store chains build stores anywhere they think might turn a profit, and then end up closing many of them when the economy goes south. It’s not uncommon to see the perfectly good buildings they leave behind repurposed for something else: churches, business schools, offices. But McAllen, Texas took a different tack with their abandoned Wal-Mart: they turned it into an immense single-floor public library and community center.

Looking at all the pictures in the article, it seems like the kind of place I’d love to visit. Not only does it have plenty of space for books and reading, and a pizza restaurant, it even hosts a year-round farmers’ market, which moves indoors in the winter time. It has a number of computer labs, a café, and even a used book store. And I expect it has the same e-book options as any other public library these days.

I’d like to see a lot more of this kind of thing.

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TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. I’d love to visit it too and spend hours there. It’s a practical approach to offering good service at low cost.

    When I lived in Seattle, I was ticked off that the city spent far more money that it ought on a status-seeking downtown library. Books are heavy, so building a library as a high-rise added a lot of expense over building at ground level. Making matters worse, while the library itself has floors, the stacks don’t. They’re in one continuous, Dewey-decimal spiral. That added to costs and confused users. To get to a book at 867.9, you can go to one floor and go up the spiral or another floor and go down. Why that ambiguity?

    At better solution, I thought at the time it was built, was to do what McAllen, Texas has done and adapt the largest, ground-level facility available as a central library. Let the downtown library serve those downtown—mostly business interests wanting economic and legal data. Let this huge but inexpensive, single-floor central library actually serve a central storage-and-distribution role.

    That’d also fit well with what’s happening with big-city libraries. More and more, people aren’t going to their local library to browse and find something to read. They’re going to the library’s online database, finding a book they want, and requesting that it be delivered to their local library. At the library I used, the shelves where requested books were placed was steadily taking over more and more space.

    A central library that was designed first and foremost as a central distribution facility would do double-duty in this new way of using libraries. It’d store the majority of a city’s collection inexpensively. Someone who absolutely had to get a book quickly could go there, taking advantage of the convenient parking (impossible for a downtown library).

    Most people, however, would request a book be transported from there to their local library for pickup. That’d be quite efficient. Students and others on skates (sounds like fun) would pick requested books off shelves for transportation that day or the next to that local library.

    Instead, Seattle is stuck with a clumsy system of distributed storage. The request has to go out to the particular local library that has the book to be pulled from the shelves. That book then has to go into the downtown library (at least one day), before going out to other local libraries (at least a second day). That’s twice the time, twice the handling, and twice the expense. And that clumsy process has to be repeated when a book is returned too.

    So my congratulations to McAllen for doing their library right and two thumbs down to Seattle for getting its central library wrong. For that, I’m not inclined to blame the city’s librarians. I blame the city’s too-powerful downtown real estate interest who treat the city’s too-nice voters as a piggy bank to be raided for any scheme that’ll make them richer. A fancy central library adds value to downtown real estate.

    In that, the city’s downtown library takes its place as a bad move alongside two expensive and specialized sports stadiums and an underground Viaduct replacement that’s a year behind schedule, only ten-percent completed, and likely to see a billion-dollar cost overrun.

    Before I moved away from Seattle I tried to warn friends that the city was wasting its high-tech Microsoft/Amazon boom money on construction projects that made little economic sense, that the city was making the same blunders Detroit made during its 1950s boom times. Alas, I got nowhere. Seattle will have to learn the hard way.

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