Alternative Library offers books along with cooperative atmosphere

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 23, 2013 

Alternative Library

Volunteer librarian Alex Morrow shelves books while Hannah Cayen browses the stacks at the new location of the Bellingham Alternative Library on Railroad Avenue next to Casa Que Pasa in Bellingham . The library is open daily from noon to 7pm and focuses on books not found at public libraries.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Cullen Beckhorn, the founder of Bellingham Alternative Library, was too busy learning things to bother with finishing college.

Raised in Chimacum, a small town near Port Townsend, he came to Bellingham in 2005 to attend Western Washington University on his own dime. He soon left school, however, which wasn't surprising given his reason for enrolling in the first place.

"Escaping unfavorable circumstances under the guise of going to college," is how he put it.

"I think I was too interested in education," Beckhorn said. "I learned a lot, but not what I was paying to learn about."

Beckhorn dove into performing experimental jazz, but soon came to a crossroads when his gear was stolen and he received a check from his insurance company. Rather than continue in music, he decided to develop a cooperatively run lending library with an emphasis on art and radical culture.

For several years the library was run out of a cooperative house that Beckhorn shared with several dozen other people. The library grew, but its location in a house dampened access for the general public.

So last year the library moved to the basement of Make.Shift Art Space, at 306 Flora St. The need for more space, in part, prompted a move last month to the street-level space on Railroad Avenue formerly filled by Little Tiger Toys.

The new location is much larger and more expensive to rent, a fact brought home when a group that planned to sublet part of the space backed out, Beckhorn said.

As long as expenses can be covered, the library will work toward its goal of not only providing a place to borrow books, but also of providing a cooperative, volunteer-run space that supports independent artists and like-minded people, especially young people.

The library has more than 900 members, include about 50 lifetime members, and about 6,000 titles, Beckhorn said. Topics include many that one would find in any library or bookstore, such as history, literature, biography and children's books. Topics with more extensive selections include science fiction, anarchist theory and cartoon art books.

The library also provides room for events, such as poetry readings, open mic benefits, art workshops and art practice sessions. Long-range plans include a skill exchange, tool library and an expanded outlet for handmade products made by members.

On the side, Beckhorn, 27, runs a small publishing company and also a distribution service for works by comic artists.

"I read comics religiously through high school," he said.

Beckhorn is thoughtful, articulate and dedicated to the library. The library strives for cooperative involvement, but he carries the title of director, at least in an informal sense.

"Essentially, I'm the person with the most experience," he said.

BELLINGHAM ALTERNATIVE LIBRARY

Address: 1417 Railroad Ave.

Hours: Noon to 7 p.m. daily

Online: altlib.org

Phone: 360-312-4287

How the library works: The library is volunteer-run, with income from member fees going to rent and acquisitions. Anyone can visit, but only members can check out books.

To become a member, visit the library and make a $5 deposit. Members are asked to contribute $5 a month for 20 months, after which they become lifetime members and no longer have to pay dues.

Members can check out up to five items at a time, request new acquisitions and vote on requests. Members who have paid monthly fees longer and posted more book reviews have more votes.

People can donate books to the library, but the library is selective about which books to keep. Volunteers, sponsors and financial donations are welcome.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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