Exotic masks and costumes seemed in short supply under the shimmering streamers of the annual New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) Mardi Gras fundraiser celebration this year — but not the celebratory fervor that kicked into high gear at the celebration’s temporary new location in Westville.
The Fat Tuesday gala fundraiser for the library system was held this year at the Westville Mitchell Branch on Harrison Street rather than, as in the past, the main branch downtown.
A transformed children’s section of the Mitchell Branch took on the look and vibe of an open-air food bazaar as a diverse collection of some of New Haven’s finest eateries showed why New Haven has become a culinary mecca.
G Cafe and Olives and Oil were among the 16 establishments teaming up to feed the crowd. Others included Amoy’s, Barracuda, Claire’s Corner Copia, Edible Arrangements, Elm City Social, Olea, Ordinary, Rawa, Gateway Community College, Crepes Choupette, Heirloom, Katalina’s Cupcakes, Two Roads and Zinc.
The Funky Dawgz Brass Band commanded a makeshift stage emblazoned with the letters NHFPL. With the help of a drummer, the all-brass band served up heaps of New Orleans-style funk.
“The Violet Bubble,” an enticing photo booth by Westville’s Lotta Studio, was “designed to stimulate a magical world of imagination” emblematic of the “expansive literary world contained in each New Haven Free Public Library branch,” according to the studio.
Missing from this year’s celebration was the regular large-scale silent auction. In its place was a balloon game of chance. A $25 purchase allowed buyers to “pop” a balloon for the chance of winning prizes that included gift certificates, tickets for special events, and thank-you notes for those not winning one of 75 prizes among the 100 balloons.
In the adjacent booth, NHFPL was debuting its new line of merchandise including printed silk scarves, note cards, and prints by artist Rashmi, whose work is featured in the project “Celebrate New Haven: A Collaborative Citywide Photo Collage,” an effort that involved all five library communities.
The celebration was moved this year from The Ives Main Library to the Mitchell branch due to renovations underway at the main branch for “Ives Squared,” a new space for “innovation and interaction” that will make 21st-century upgrades in facilities and in thinking about libraries as greater sources of engagement, access and opportunity.
The move to the Mitchell branch was also prompted by Mitchell’s branch manager, Sharon Lovett-Graff. According to City Librarian and Director Martha Brogan, Lovett-Graff took the initiative to request the celebration’s relocation. Lovett-Graff said she believed the Mitchell library space would be the ideal place to host the sprawling party.
Volunteer event designer Andrew Rubenoff said that having the event at Michell would draw visitors who might not otherwise visit the location. He added that Mitchell library staffers were “happy to have it here” — a sentiment echoed by John Jessen, NHFPL’s deputy director, who doubled as a bartender at the wine bar.
The Hillhouse High School Marching Band emerged from the library’s fiction aisle playing the old gospel standard “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Its short but inspired in-house parade route was led by Marissa Iezzi with guest musical artist Dylan McDonnell.
Elm City Dance Collective with Luis Antonio and friends, some in drag finery, handed out beads and posed for photos and as they joined in support of the fundraising effort.
Brogan, Mayor Toni Harp, and Elsie Chapman, president of the NHFPL Foundation Board of Directors, welcomed library supporters from a second floor platform. Chapman summarized the spirit of the event: “Different space, same great fun,” she said.
Chapman expressed hope for the next-generation Stetson Library as it prepares to move from its present home into the new Dixwell Q House, which is breaking ground this spring. Chapman recalled the library’s rumored demise a decade ago: “Ten years ago, when the word was on the street that the Stetson Branch, because of budget considerations and budget cuts in the city, was going to close, the Dixwell-Newhallville community mounted a grassroots campaign the likes of which we hadn’t seen. Fast forward. Last year, the Stetson celebrated its 100th year.” (Click here to read a story about that.)
Chapman urged support of the Stetson Library’s silent auction and ongoing Next Chapter fund drive with a $250,000 goal and potential for a dollar-for-dollar matching donation by the Seedlings Foundation for gifts ranging from $50 to $10,000. Chapman also discussed the reemergence of the Stetson Library as a state-of-the-art facility. “The New Stetson Library is going to be half again as large as the current library,” she said. “It’s going to have all new technology, it’s going to be on two levels, it’s going to be state of the art, it’s going to be everything a branch library in this city should be. We are at $1.3 million, with a goal of $2 million.”
“As many of you in this fundraising business know, sometimes that last $700,000 is the toughest to get,” she added, drawing a burst of laughter.
Speaking for several minutes about the important role libraries play in our collective lives, Mayor Harp quoted legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite, who once said that, “Libraries, whatever their cost, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”
In her introductory comments, Brogan thanked the mayor, myriad volunteers and advocates, officials, and the New Haven Free Public Library Foundation and library board, as she discussed “the spirit of generosity.” Free public libraries “are needed most during the darkest times,” she said.
To contribute or learn more about The Next Chapter funding campaign, visit the NHFPL website here.