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Small But Mighty: Woodlawn Heights Celebrates 60

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Children's artwork at Woodlawn Heights Library
Students at the nearby school St. Mark's thank the branch staff for reading to them.

If New York City were a stadium, Woodlawn Heights would be way up in the nosebleed section. The Bronx neighborhood is just shy of Yonkers, and the branch itself is three blocks away from being in a Neil Simon play. But, for that reason, Woodlawn Heights has a suburban feel.

Or, as Kate Layden, 33, puts it: “A neighborhood-y feeling.”

This branch of The New York Public Library, which celebrates its 60th anniversary September 1, is like “Cheers,” library manager Rana Smith says, because everybody knows your name. Whole families come here to work, study, and play; Smith not only recognizes patrons by sight, but knows their mother, father, and brother who visit this branch. Certain library cards, she says, bring up a long list under one last name, generations of readers who return again and again.

On a typical Thursday morning, regulars type away at the desktops, teens play on borrowed laptops, a trio of professionals meets over iPads, and four red-headed kids ages 3, 4, 5 and 7 go zipping by, their babysitter trailing behind. Leyden and her husband Raymond, 39, have brought their son to story time though he’s still an infant.

"We wanted him to get an early start," Raymond boasts. His voice is loud with an Irish brogue, but that’s common enough in a town dubbed “Little Ireland.” Up and down Katonah Avenue, where the branch is located, pubs like the Celtic House dot the street, Shamrocks decorate the signs, and the Emerald Isle Immigration Center has one of two New York City locations. Just up the way, on the border of Yonkers, a St. Patrick’s Day Parade is held every year. But the neighborhood is also diverse, with several ethnicities represented.

Raymond swings the baby carrier up and through the bookshelves being used to cordon off the reading area. It's a small space, and during the school year it gets packed, but there’s nothing Smith can do about it: The whole branch is a scant 2,500 square feet. Other NYPL locations call themselves as a one-room library, but they have a children’s annex or a multipurpose room tucked away in the back. At Woodlawn Heights, what you see is what you get.

“We do everything, but on a smaller scale,” Smith says, and she means it.

The branch has all the highlights of an NYPL library branch: Adult, teen, and children’s collections; tables and computers to borrow; quiet spaces to work; and events that range from storytime to author Jenny Milchman coming to discuss her new thriller later this month.

Longtime patron, Lynne Von Hagen, 62, is particularly excited about that one, and she uses the library’s hard-cover copy of As Night Falls to gesture as she talks about “the joy of reading.” She loves that she can request any book she wants from “downtown,” aka  Manhattan. She also loves that she can bring her babysitting charges to the branch, so that they have a safe space in which to socialize and do their homework.

When Von Hagen says that, Abigail, 14, perks up. Abigail is working with her mother on a report one table over. Von Hagen, Abigail says, introduced her and her brother to the branch where they were younger.

Woodlawn Heights librarian leads story time
Children rock out to storytime with librarian Rachel Hanig.

That’s when Shane, 11, chimes in. That’s her brother. He is sitting one more table over playing videogames with a friend: “You don’t even have to pay or anything.”

But for Abigail it’s the branch’s atmosphere: “It’s so peaceful.”

In just a few minutes, children’s librarian Rachel Hanig will start reading "Little Bunny Foo Foo," and the toddlers will respond like it's a rock concert, jumping out of their seats, clapping and shrieking with glee. But for now, the Leydens are mingling with the other stay-at-home moms, nannies, grandmothers, babies and toddlers assembled. The regulars are typing away, and the kids are goofing around.

Just another day, one of 21,914 in the 60-year history of Woodlawn Heights. Or, as Smith calls it: “That little branch at the tip of the Bronx.”

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