Visitors to Cape May County look forward to new beachfront libraries

Posted: Saturday, July 16, 2011

WILDWOOD CREST - Maria Bukowski of Wilton, Conn., enjoyed the morning Saturday on the beach before the hot sun drove her family indoors.

At midday, they sought refuge at the Cape May County library, within walking distance from their hotel, where she sat on the floor with her daughters perusing children's books.

Bukowski said this beachfront library is as common a destination each summer for their family as the Boardwalk and the amusement piers.

"It's nice to take a little break from the hot weather. And the kids love to read," she said. "We usually bring books with us but this year we forgot to pack them."

Her daughters, 7-year-old Emily and 4-year-old Karolinka, took turns leafing through the illustrated hardcovers of Dr. Seuss.

Cape May County's library system is in the middle of a major renovation and rebuilding project to designs by Garrison Architects of Marlton. The county last year finished renovating branches in Lower and Upper townships and Cape May.

The new $5.5 million Sea Isle City branch on Central Avenue is nearly completed. And if Stone Harbor gets its coastal permits soon, as expected, the county will go out to bid this fall on a new $5 million oceanfront branch there.

Meanwhile, the county plans to move the Wildwood Crest branch to a new, bigger building a block away.

All this activity is fueled by demand, library Director Deborah Poillon said. The library's visitation is up more than 10 percent over last year.

"We have been changing and adapting over the last 20 years," library Director Deborah Poillon said. "We're trying to be more of a community center. We still want the library but we also want people to take classes and make it a comfortable atmosphere for people to come in."

To that end, the new libraries in Stone Harbor and Sea Isle City will feature outdoor decks where people can read or bring their laptops, she said.

The library chain is becoming especially popular with visitors each summer, Poillon said.

"We're busy all year long, but especially in the small island branches, usage really goes up in the summer," she said.

For visitors, the library provides an oasis of inexpensive diversion in a sea of often-pricey shore entertainment. A library card is free to county residents. Non-residents can get a summer library card for $30 that allows them to check out free DVDs, video games, books and music.

"A lot of families are coming in to use the computers. I've heard from a number of people that in this economy, one thing they had to give up was Internet access at home," she said.

All the libraries are equipped with free wifi. And the county offers new programs - from cooking demonstrations to exercise classes - every week.

Stone Harbor has been trying to build a new branch since 2007 but winning state permits for its oceanfront location on 95th Street has proven tricky. Mayor Suzanne Walters said the goal was to provide more public access to the beach while offering a one-of-a-kind library experience.

The new library will have a coffee bar along with a second-floor outdoor deck overlooking the beach and the ocean.

"By locating it on the ocean, it makes it a destination," Walters said. "It will have a museum and meeting rooms. It will have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach. Right now, if you don't own oceanfront property, that's not available to you."

And this attraction, in turn, might help other island businesses, she said.

Kelly Hamlin, 47, of Wildwood Crest, is a regular patron of her local library. She spent Saturday morning looking for new beach reads.

"The library is extremely important to me," she said. "I read a book every two weeks. When my daughter went to camp, she brought two books. She's a big reader."

Graduate student Jennifer Cannon, 32, of Philadelphia, sat at a table by a window. The library provides a quiet escape for studying, she said.

"I have a 10-month-old daughter so I don't get anything done at home," she said.

The county's libraries are equipped for the digital age with plenty of outlets for laptops, she said. It has more to offer now than when she was her daughter's age, she said.

"It used to be a place to go to get a book. Now I take my daughter here for puppet shows," she said.

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