"Do you know Ned's Bar?" the man asks from his car, heading down the main drag of the tiny and flood-prone borough of Millvale.
"Ned owns it, but it's Tony's, over there," answers Brian Wolovich, and points the man on his way.
Millvale's like that -- a small place where people know each other, help each other out. It's home to one of the area's best-loved French bakeries, a music venue and recording studio, and plenty of inexpensive housing. What it doesn't have, though, is a library.
Wolovich, with Tricia George and the nonprofit group New Sun Rising, is hoping to change that. Wolovich and George got the idea during a town cleanup in April, looking up at an empty building as they picked cigarette butts out of the street.
"There's never been a library here -- the closest are three miles away, in Shaler, Sharpsburg or Lawrenceville," says George. "None of them are within walking or bussing distance."
The pair says that the lack of a library contributes to Millvale's depressed status. According to the 2000 U.S. census, less than 5 percent of Millvale residents have a college degree -- less than a third of the national average of 15.5 percent. "You hear a lot about the digital divide -- this is the gap," says Wolovich. "This is one of the things we hope to address. Having a library is an indicator of school readiness."
At this point, the library is more of an idea than anything else. Rent at the building that first piqued their interest was too expensive. They're scouting existing locations in Millvale and seeking cash, support and nuts-and-bolts stuff like, well, books. Donations are trickling in, but the library is probably years away. "We're not professional library-starters," says Wolovich. Their first community meeting drew a dozen people on Oct. 8, and another is planned for Nov. 7.
George, an urban-studies major at Pitt, and Wolovich, a middle-school teacher in Great Valley, live in a Millvale house where Wolovich's great-aunt and -uncle had lived. They decided to feel out community support for a possible library, setting up a table at Millvale Days, the borough's annual community street fair in September, and distributing hundreds of surveys to business owners, children and adults.
"I think it would be wonderful," says Fred Bohn, owner of Attic Records, a Millvale institution since 1980. "Any kind of education that can be offered to a city that has nothing, it's a good thing." He says a safe place for neighborhood kids to go with computers would help revitalize the borough. "I can foresee it being a Shadyside or a Bloomfield; I don't see why not."
Red Star Ironworks moved their operations to Millvale in 2006, and office manager Mike "Q" Roth says the library and planned adjacent green space are a great idea. Red Star has designed a gate for the green space, Roth says, and will build it for the cost of materials. (An artists' rendering of the gate appears on the Web site www.millvalelibrary.org.)
Millvale, Roth says, is more open to such ideas than one might think. "There are people who say, 'Let's stay, let's make things happen.' The borough is smart enough to realize they should hear them out and give them support." Wolovich and George say they've been in talks with the borough's Main Street manager, Eddie Figas, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, challenges remain.
To be accredited as a library, a facility must meet state requirements on staffing, computer access and types of collections, says Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association. Startup costs and requirements, Jenkins says, vary a great deal with how big a library wants to be and what services it hopes to deliver. The newly unveiled Hill District branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, for example, cost more than $3 million -- and that's before it even purchased a book, says CLP spokesperson Suzanne Thinnes.
Opening a new library is "a very large undertaking but certainly a worthy one," Jenkins says. "Clearly having a library for the residents there is just a wonderful concept. We are looking at ways we can help support that effort." All county libraries use the eiNetwork, a shared card catalog allowing borrowers access to books countywide Jenkins says she referred Wolovich and George to the Shaler Library about possibly becoming a branch of that system.
George and Wolovich say the proposed library would include a coffee shop that could serve as a gathering place for borough residents and could help offset the costs of the library. They want designs to incorporate green building technology -- a fitting innovation for the borough, Wolovich says: "We live in a place that's defined by what happens when you don't develop responsibly," referring to the frequent flood devastation the town suffers when Girty's Run floods during rainstorms and hurricanes. "The technology is there -- it's your responsibility to use it," George says.
"There's some really nice amenities -- the park, the bakery," Wolovich says. "A library's a thing that says, 'I could be here.' It's providing opportunity."