It’s not unusual to see children and teenagers sitting or standing outside of Hill’s Barber Shop with their phones or computers, especially during the school year.
The 76-year-old barber shop in Columbia’s Edgewood neighborhood is one of the only places in the community to access modern day’s most essential technology: the internet.
The nearest public libraries, where the internet is free to use, are too far to walk. And in lower-income areas like Edgewood and its neighbors, where many families can’t afford to pay for home internet access, many can’t afford the transportation to a library across town, either.
“It’s a bad thing for our children not to be able to connect to the internet. Terrible situation,” said Moses Felder, the owner of Hill’s since the 1960s. “When I close, they’ll park around here just to get on the internet. I don’t run them out. The children, they need that.”
It’s been more than 40 years since the closest public library – one of few available to African-Americans in the days of persistent segregation – shut down on Gervais Street in the nearby Waverly neighborhood. Now, for the first time since 1971, the residents of the Edgewood, Celia Saxon, Waverly and Martin Luther King neighborhoods, as well as others nearby, are looking forward to a public library within walking distance.
It’s a bad thing for our children not to be able to connect to the internet. Terrible situation.
Moses Felder, owner of Hill’s Barber Shop
Richland Library will lease a 7,000-square-foot building at the corner of Elmwood and Oak streets, a block from Hill’s Barber Shop and near the Drew Wellness Center, from the Columbia Housing Authority for $1 per month.
The library plans to spend about $2.2 million on the new branch, which is expected to open sometime in the early part of 2018, according to Richland Library director Melanie Huggins.
The closest library branches currently are on North Main Street, Assembly Street and Woodrow Street in Old Shandon. They are between two and three-and-a-half miles from the planned Edgewood branch.
“Geographically, it might not be that far,” Huggins said. “But it’s difficult if you don’t have a car or you’re a one-car family or don’t necessarily have bus service that’s adjacent to your neighborhood. ... I really feel like the stars aligned in this neighborhood for this to happen.”
Situated between Harden Street and Two Notch Road, the future library was until recently a Dollar General store.
It is within reasonable walking distance of the Allen Benedict Court and Gonzales Gardens public-housing developments, as well as the Housing Authority’s Elderly Cottages and Oak Read high-rise for low-income elderly residents. It also is within a mile of Carver-Lyon and Watkins-Nance elementary schools, W.A. Perry Middle School and C.A. Johnson High School.
In a community with more than 700 units of public housing and other households living on low-to-moderate incomes, the lack of easy access to a library also means little access to the variety of free educational services that a library provides.
Richland Library has partnered with Second Nazareth Church in the Edgewood neighborhood for about a year and a half to offer some library services, including computer access, book check-out and children’s program, Huggins said. But a full-sized, permanent location will allow the library to better serve the community.
“I’m so excited about the project because of all the little things in life that internet is just going to bring to that neighborhood,” said Nancy Stoudenmire of the Columbia Housing Authority. “For instance, if you lose your job due to a layoff, you have to go on the internet to file a claim. Now, you can go to the library.”
The library also provides resources for building resumes and applying for assistance such as food stamps, Stoudenmire said. And its impact on low-income children could boost their future opportunities, she said.
“For a lot of these kids, they’re not brought up in households that read,” Stoudenmire said. “I just think it gives you that opportunity to advance yourself economically if you’re a good reader.”
Anything culturally to our advantage, we want.
James Baker, Waverly resident
The first Richland County library accessible to African-Americans opened in the 1930s in the old YWCA building on Park Street, according to Huggins. Some time later, that library moved to the Gervais Street location in the Waverly neighborhood before closing in 1971.
Felder remembers going to the Gervais Street library long before the internet was a concern. So does James Baker, a Waverly resident of more than seven decades.
“We used the library frequently because there were programs there for the young folks. We didn’t have access to the TV and social media and all that back then,” Baker said. “It was some place that we looked forward to going in the afternoons after school.”
Now, Baker drives his grandson out to the North Main Street library whenever the youngster is in town visiting.
He looks forward to having a library back in his community for the new generation of young folks to enjoy.
“Anything culturally to our advantage, we want,” Baker said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.