Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alternative Library offers unusual literature

Sehome neighborhood's Alternative Library boasts a growing collection of alternative literature from comics to philosophy.

More than 2,000 books fill the Alternative Library at 717 North Forest St. in Bellingham’s Sehome Neighborhood.

Open from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., the small living-room-turned-library is lined with books ranging from Marvel’s Spider-Man comics to “The Activist’s Handbook” by Randy Shaw.

Cullen Beckhorn, the library’s creator, said the library is focused on quality over quantity and carries several books that can’t be found at the public library.

“I try to have a diverse selection from minority voices and oppressed people,” Beckhorn said. “Most of the books express a feminist view, and each book has a lot of intention for why it is here, as opposed to the public library that purchases books from the New York Times best-seller list."

To check out books from the Alternative Library requires a $5 monthly fee.

Beckhorn said the money is put toward purchasing books from a request list. Anyone who uses the library can add a book to the request list and Beckhorn said he adds his own requests to the bottom of the list just like every other library user.

The beginning of the Alternative Library

Beckhorn started the library three years ago with $1,000 worth of comic books he purchased with money from an insurance settlement. For a year, the library was housed in Beckhorn’s car before he and a group of friends began renting the house on North Forest Street.

"It started as a comic-specific library because at the time the Bellingham Public Library had an extremely weak comic section,” Beckhorn said.

Of the 2,000 books in the library, more than half are comics.

“One of my missions in life is to spread [the] interest in comics,” the 23-year-old comic enthusiast said.

Beckhorn said not all comics are about superheroes.

"When talking about comics you have to separate content from form. If you take away that content and put in something else, like a humanitarian message, you'll get things like Joe Sanco's 'Palestine.'"

“Palestine” is a nonfiction comic that has even been used as a textbook for literature classes at Western, Beckhorn said.

Since starting the library, Beckhorn said he has expanded its selection to include books of all forms and genres, not just comics.

Living at the library

Gabriel Springsnow, 25, also lives at 717 North Forest St., which he calls The Sushi House.

Springsnow has only lived in the house for a month but said he’s known Beckhorn for more than three years.

“He really is a scholar in graphic literature,” Springsnow said.

Springsnow said he’s used to people coming in and out of the house and having the library there is a great resource for the community. Although he admits he doesn’t use the library often.

“I don’t really read graphic novels,” Springsnow said. “I like textbooks.”

What do the neighbors think?

Western sophomore Drew Miller said he found the library more than a year ago, before he lived next door. He said he found it while walking around the neighborhood and has been using the library ever since.

Miller said he checks out one or two comics a month. The 20-year-old art major said he’s always been interested in graphic novels and sequential art, and the Alternative Library carries the best selection in town.

“He knows his stuff,” Miller said about Beckhorn. “I’d say he’s a comic scholar in progress.”

Neighbor Sharon Sumner, 70, said she’s never visited the Alternative Library but has spent some time talking to the people who live at the house.

Sumner said she’s seen all kinds of people, usually students, move in and out of the North Forest house and she likes the group that rent it now.

“They are so thoughtful and such neat people,” Sumner said. “And there are some small kids that are always around, which is nice.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood shares Sumner’s view of the Alternative Library and the residents who live in 717 North Forest.

Neighbor Ray Nelson said he wouldn’t go to the library.

“It’s disgusting,” Nelson said. “There are always so many bicycles outside and little kids running around.”

Nelson said Beckhorn attended a couple neighborhood association meetings during a time when the board was looking to elect a young adult.

“The guy who lives there came to a [neighborhood association] meeting and we wanted a student on the board,” Nelson said. “We elected him, but he never came to another meeting. He got thrown off the board, so we elected a woman to replace him.”

Beckhorn said he went to a couple meetings of the neighborhood association but didn’t have time to continue.

“The meetings start at 7 p.m. and the library closes at seven, so it was just too hard to pack up here and make it to the meetings on time,” Beckhorn said. “I sent in a notice of resignation after a couple months.”

Sehome Neighborhood Association President Charles Dyer said he hadn’t heard any complaints about the library and the neighborhood association takes no stance one way or the other.

“I’ve never been to the library,” Dyer said, “But I have heard some students talk about using it.”

The future of the library

Beckhorn said he picks up landscaping jobs here and there to pay his bills, but his hope is to start a publishing company while running the library so he can be at the library full-time and extend the hours of operation.

Beckhorn said he hopes someday to move to a street with more foot traffic.

“I’d love to be on Garden Street or Indian Street,” Beckhorn said. “Somewhere between the university and downtown.”

Beckhorn’s favorites

“Prometheus Rising” by Robert Anton Wilson

“Starmaker” by Olaf Stapledon

“Transmetropolitan” comic book series

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