After Erie County closed libraries, Brighton Place survived as “a little building with a big heart”

Jerry Sullivan

It seems hard to believe it’s been more than 15 years. In the summer of 2005, Erie County closed 24 of its 52 branch libraries. Money was tight. Citizens were finding new ways to consume information. Books were expendable. The county saved about $6 million, the cost of a good offensive tackle.

One of those libraries targeted for elimination was Brighton Place, a little community treasure at 999 Brighton Road in the Town of Tonawanda, right down the block from Kenmore East High School.

Mike Rizzo, who owned a restaurant nearby on Eggert Road, found out that the residents weren’t taking the decision lying down. He read an article in the newspaper about Kathleen Byrnes, a determined, 17-year-old girl who was carrying a petition door-to-door, fighting to keep Brighton Place alive.

“I need to do something,” Rizzo thought to himself. Anything that could spur this sort of devotion in his community deserved to be saved. So he decided to attend a town board meeting to urge them to save the library.

“I knew a lot of them from coming into Rizzo’s after their meetings,” said Rizzo, who now owns five restaurants in the area. “The following month, I went to the town board meeting and got up and talked about the library. At the time, I don’t think I’d been in it in many years.”

The town eventually relented. They said the residents would have to create a library board. Rizzo was president, Jason Aronoff vice president and Jeanne Phillips secretary. The library could stay open, but the people had to support it financially and provide the staff and materials.

Mike Rizzo, center, knew he had to do something to save the library. The task of fundraising started with started with a spaghetti dinner at Rizzo’s Restaurant, in which they raised about $5,000 the first year.

“The town was really good to us at the beginning,” Phillips said. “All we had to pay was utilities. They didn’t think it would last. I think that was the idea, that it won’t last.”

It lasted, and it thrived. In May of 2006, the library reopened as a non-profit organization (Friends of Brighton Place) and enjoyed a steady growth in the intervening years, adding various program, events and clubs, along with new materials and updated technology. Later, the town agreed to pay utiltiies.

Brighton Place became more than simply a place where people checked out books. As its website suggests, it’s a “Community Resource Center.” That was Rizzo’s vision when he took on the venture, that the library be a community gathering place, offering everything from Toddler Time to Senior Luncheon speakers to Ukulele Lessons.

“At the time, this was not how libraries were,” said Phillips. “Well, now a lot of libraries have evolved that way. I think Mike was ahead of his time!”

Rizzo’s main task was fundraising, the life blood of the library. It started with a spaghetti dinner at Rizzo’s Restaurant, in which they raised about $5,000 the first year. Now their biggest fundraising event is “Cooks For Books,” a dinner auction at which top area chefs — Mike Andrzejewski was one of the originals — volunteer to work different food stations.

On Tuesday, Aug. 3, they’ll have their annual fundraising golf scramble at Rothland’s Golf Course in Akron. For $90, golfers get 18 holes of golf, prizes, raffles, lunch and a buffet dinner from Rizzo’s on the patio at Rothland’s afterwards, with proceeds benefiting Brighton Place and Cardinal O’Hara High School.

“People say, ‘Oh, we don’t need libraries anymore,’” said Donna White, who has been Brighton Place director and head librarian since 2014. “Well, this community wants it bad enough that they have continued to support it since 2006, which is quite a big deal, I think.

“It’s a lovely, lovely story,” White said. “The fact that the whole thing got spearheaded by a teenaged girl defies stereotypes. The fact that a community wanted to keep a library and has maintained it as long as it has also defies stereotypes.”

Dan Herbeck and his wife, Joyce, have been volunteers from the start. He calls Brighton Place “a little building with a big heart.” The library does seem more like a living, breathing entity, one that inspires devotion in so many people. The DVD section is dedicated to his late mother, Mary Lou Herbeck.

“You know, a lot of people who are involved with this are people who used to come there when they were little kids,” said Herbeck, a veteran reporter for The Buffalo News. “Now they’re going there with their kids or grand-kids.”

“And that’s us,” Joyce said. “We brought our kids there for Story Hour, now we bring our grand-kids for Story Hour.”

As Dan Herbeck said, it couldn’t have happened without Rizzo. But it also took countless hours of help from volunteers to sustain the library. White was the only full-time librarian at Brighton Place until the pandemic hit. She’s working about half that now. The library was closed for more than a year. It reopened in May on a limited basis.

White said she has a crew of volunteers who help get people signed in at the door and make sure they’re wearing mask. They also help with cleaning duties. Her youngest volunteer is 13. It’s never too early to carry on a proud neighborhood tradition.

“Once people started getting vaccinated and I was able to get vaccinated, we were able to open the doors to the public,” White said. “But I was here doing curbside, probably from November. People would call and ask me for books. I would get them and check them out, put them in a bag with their name on it and set them out on a table outside.”

Some of the regulars would have White choose the books for them. The library is truly like a family for a lot of folks. They’ve come to know White so well that they trust her to pick out the books that they’re most likely to enjoy.

Donna White, the head librarian since 2014, was able to reopen during the pandemic by leaving books in bags on a table for customers.

“That’s what it is,” Rizzo said. “It’s more about that personal interaction with people. “Even though it’s been a little crazy the last couple of years, people know a lot of us are pretty committed to it. We keep re-inventing ourselves, bringing new ideas to the table to see how we can help the community next.”

White, who worked as a restoration artist before getting a degree in library science, said things are coming back slowly at Brighton Place. Most of the programs are still on hold because of Covid concerns. But she said the more traditional users are back, taking out books and reading to kids. She said they’re adding new members, too. It’s a great deal, a lifetime library membership for $5.

She didn’t worry that the library could go out of business because of the pandemic. Neither did Rizzo. There’s too much emotional investment in that building, too much heart, for it to expire. There’s a sense of, well, renewal.

“I always knew we’d re-open,” White said. “I did worry that people might replace us. Maybe they’d buy Kindles and get into a different routine. But I don’t think we’ve been replaced in any kind of way. It is good.”

White was asked what she would do if she had a terrific offer for another job. She hesitated. ““If I had an offer for the perfect, perfect job, I’d be gutted,” she said. “I’d be gutted. It would be hard. I mean, I’ve been here for such a long time, the customers are friends. They’re family.

“Every time I come into work, I have people saying, ‘I’m so grateful for this place. I’m so happy it’s still here.’”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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