It’s the quiet people behind the scenes that keep every community running smoothly. With her warm smile and short salt and pepper hair, Valerie Reichert keeps local residents interested and engaged at the Bernal Heights Library branch. As we sat down to talk in her cozy office, the bright afternoon sun shone through a window, where little sticky notes with children’s drawings hung neatly on the ledge. Small potted plants sat above a library cart filled with books waiting to be handled. She offered me a cup of tea as we sat down to talk about what makes this branch such a vibrant thread in the neighborhood tapestry.
Jen: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been at the Bernal Library?
Valerie: I’ve been at the Bernal Library for 10 years. During the first 2 years, the library was being renovated so the city deployed me throughout the library system. Once that was complete and we opened to the public, I became the children’s librarian. I did that for two years until I became the branch manager. I’m also a long time Bernalese, (Bernal Heights residents) since I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 35 years.
Jen: What do you think is so special about this neighborhood?
Valerie: There’s something about it you can’t touch, which I love because that’s what makes it so special. It’s always been a community, even long before it felt discovered.
Some people have aged out and some people have sold out, but the old timers are still here. Long before this was a cool, hip neighborhood, there was a strong bond between neighbors. Now new people get incorporated, and they incorporate other people. It’s infectious. People need to belong. Now more than ever. Most of us know the neighbors on our block. People can walk out the door and say “hi” to their neighbor and they’ll say “hi” back. There’s a way we relate to each other here that’s particularly “Bernal.” It’s a sweet little village. We’re also nestled in geographically.
Jen: This library seems to tie deeply into the fabric of the neighborhood. What do you see as the library’s role in the community?
Valerie: San Francisco Public Library has a mission to serve as many neighborhoods as possible. We want everybody to use and enjoy our branches, so we work on identifying underserved areas through focused studies and outreach. We’re constantly doing community studies to understand our neighborhood better.
Personally, I think one of the best things libraries offer is consistency. That’s something our crew takes seriously. People can come here if they need information and somebody is always happy to help. If new technologies are problematic for patrons, we can help them. We can usually find and show people what they need. People feel safe here. It’s a gift to the community and it’s free.
Jen: What about volunteering and partnering with other organizations?
Valerie: We have strong partnerships with our local schools and after-school programs. Every year we are a co-sponsor of the Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema Film Crawl. We have such a concentration of filmmakers and creatives here that the neighborhood has its own film festival! So we support that event every year and it’s always fun. We recently co-hosted with BHOC (Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema) the showing of an old film called Bernaltown – The Movie. It was made by Gregory Gavin in 1997. It’s a neighborhood classic starring locals. I remember the first time it was shown in 1997 outside in the playground which was packed with what seemed like all of Bernal cheering every time someone they knew appeared on the screen.
Then one of my favorites is our partnership with the Bernal Heights Jazz Quintet. They are a group of professional musicians who play here once a month as a volunteer activity. They have a pretty great following now. It’s also one of the staff’s favorite nights at the branch because we can hear them throughout the building as we work.
Jen: Can we talk about the library’s programs and the continuity they provide?
Valerie: Some of our strongest programs are for children, teens, and aging adults. The Weekly Story-times are always full, as are the ongoing maker programs for kids. We also have a program called Aging in Bernal. The aim is to create community and get people out of their houses so they don’t silo. We’re trying to learn about things people might need at this stage of life. I’ve had a neurologist come talk about brain health, I’ve hosted a crafting day and we’ve had someone talk about trusts and wills.
The Bernal Library Book Club has met for 22 years. The Older Writers Lab (OWL) has met every Monday for the last 12 years. The Bernal History Project meets monthly. Really, our programs are popular with every age.
Jen: Do you have one particular memory that stands out or something that surprised you about working here?
Valerie: When I first started, and the library was being renovated, I would do story-time for the kids at the old corner bookstore. More than once, when I was doing my grocery shopping at Good Life, I would run into some of the kids and they would start to cry. It was like “you’re not supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be at the bookstore. You live at the bookstore.” Seriously, they thought I lived there. I’d see kids get all disoriented because they didn’t like it. It was adorable. Now the same thing happens to our two children’s librarians Paula and Sarah. We have a hilarious video of them doing a performance, talking to the kids about what it’s like living in the library after everyone goes home at night. I think it’s so funny.
Video courtesy of Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema
Photos courtesy of Valerie Reichert
Bernal Heights Library Branch is located at 500 Cortland Avenue
Ongoing Monthly Programs
• Aging in Bernal: A Community Discussion
• Bernal Book Club: Celebrating 22 years!
• Bernal History Project: Local history revealed!
• Bernal Jazz Quintet: Our mellifluous house band!
• Monthly LEGO Night: More Legos than can be imagined…
• Origami Club: All ages welcome!
• OWLs Older Writers Lab:12 years of poetry workshops!
• San Francisco Watercolor Community: Open studio for adults!
• Teen Events: Friends, media, crafts, film & refreshments!
• Baby Rhymes & Playtime: Ages 0-18 months
• Family Storytime: Ages 0-5 years
Jen Baxter is a content writer, photographer, and San Francisco, native. She loves telling stories that encourage people to be more independent, creative and involved in the community. You can find other articles at JenBaxter.com or follow her on Instagram @JenBaxterSF