A little library branch in northeast Wichita could be closing

A shopper checks the hours at the Comotara branch of the Wichita Public Library inside the Dillons store at 21st and Rock on Monday. The small library might be closing. (May 14, 2018)
A shopper checks the hours at the Comotara branch of the Wichita Public Library inside the Dillons store at 21st and Rock on Monday. The small library might be closing. (May 14, 2018) The Wichita Eagle

The Comotara branch library in northeast Wichita — the first library branch in the country to be placed in a grocery store when it opened more than three decades ago — could close soon, library officials said.

The branch, inside the Dillons store at 21st and Rock, likely will lose its rent-free space because Dillons wants to expand its services to customers and needs the square footage, said Cynthia Berner, director of libraries for Wichita.

"We've been in conversations with them, and we are waiting for something in writing. . . . But we know it's pretty likely they're going to" end the lease arrangement, Berner said Monday.

"They've been a very generous partner over the years," she said. "We could not have asked for a better relationship. So if they need to do something for their business, we would understand that."

Sheila Lowrie, spokeswoman for Dillons, confirmed late Monday that the store and the Wichita Public Library "have reached a mutual decision to explore alternative plans for the space."

Dillons is considering adding ClickList, its online ordering and pick-up service, to the Tallgrass store, so the library space will be repurposed, Lowrie said.

"We have absolutely loved hosting the Comotara Branch at Dillons for all these years," she said in an e-mail.

The lease agreement between Dillons and the Wichita Public Library allows the library to operate its branch inside the store, beside the floral department, at no cost to the library, Berner said. According to the agreement, either party can terminate the agreement at any time with 120 days notice in writing, she said.

The Comotara branch, which operates 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, is the smallest of Wichita's public library branches. Patrons browse displays of popular new titles or reserve items ahead of time and pick them up whenever they shop for groceries. The branch also has two public-use computers and wifi.

"It's a small branch, but it's a very busy branch," Berner said.

Last year, patrons checked out more than 91,000 items from the Comotara branch. That's more than the Maya Angelou branch at 21st and Hillside, which circulated about 31,000 items over the same time period, but significantly less than the Rockwell branch near Ninth and Woodlawn, which circulated about 350,000 items.

After the Comotara branch closes, patrons likely will be directed to the Maya Angelou or Rockwell branches, which are about 3 miles away.

A study by Wichita State University last year, which analyzed the populations around each Wichita library branch, found that the typical Comotara patron is college-educated with a white-collar job, making $70,000 to $90,000 a year. The branch also attracts high-income retirees, the study said.

The study, which also made recommendations for improving services, suggested creating a more bookstore-like environment and improving outreach to the surrounding community and to Dillons shoppers, to let them know the library is there.

When it opened in 1986, the Comotara branch was the first in the country to be located inside a grocery store, Berner said. Over the years, tight budgets have prompted some downsizing and a reduction in operating hours.

"From the library perspective, it's a very good business model," she said. "You have to have a generous partner to make that work, and Dillons has absolutely been that partner."