The operators of the Walmart inadvertently solved the town's conundrum by leaving behind all the books on the shelves and those still packed in storage.*
"For small towns like ours, closing down a Walmart and letting all those people go is an extinction-level event," said Olivia Pimento, a former librarian at the old Main Street library -- a basic book depository the size of a nineteenth century railroad shanty.
"During the 1960s, Texas underwent a radical political shift toward social conservatism and Republican control. Libraries eventually became depots for those books scheduled to be burned or banished...or they were used as unassuming dens for assassins," Pimento went on. "It got worse after the 1970s. Most recently, the Texas School Board rewrote and outlawed textbooks used in classrooms throughout the rest of the country. The idea of creating a new library seemed plausible only because we'd found ourselves with so many new history books to destroy. But then a sort of miracle happened."
According to Pimento, McAllen's displaced Walmart employees -- suddenly bereft of a purpose in life -- began going to the empty store and resuming their former duties in zombie-like fashion.
The greeters donned their little vests and waited at the doors for guests who weren't coming. The cashiers manned disconnected registers. The girl overseeing the dressing rooms hid in the back so she could argue with her baby-daddy via cell phone. People were cooking meth in the security offices. And the store clerks busied themselves by stocking shelves with all the books left behind in order to ignore potential customers who might ask them for help locating an item.
But at some point, a elderly man on a stroll wandered into the former Walmart. He was greeted. A clerk pointed him to a selection of books -- the only items available in the building. And after perusing a few pages of a novel about a futuristic fire department tasked with burning literature, the man walked up to a cashier to check out. But because the systems were no longer networked or operational, the cashier wrote up a lending agreement on a slip of paper, with the man promising to return the book in a few weeks.
"And thus, the McAllen Public Library was born," Pimento beamed. "It's not just helping to change the town but also the perspectives of its residents. When the old guy brought back the book -- around the same time I got involved in the library conversion project -- he told me, 'This book wasn't what I expected. But after reading it, I'm thinking that burning books is actually a bad idea.'"
The McAllen Public Library is now the largest single-story library in the country. And its transformation from mega warehouse to functioning library won it the 2012 Library Interior Design Competition by the International Interior Design Assn.
One month after dedicating the new library, user registration increased over 23 percent. That figure continues to climb, which has caused state regulators to call for an audit. As a precaution, the library's administrators have doubled their fire insurance policy.
*Walmart representatives described this as common practice for store closures or relocations, due to the virtual nonexistence of book sales in the majority of their stores and because of certain beneficial write-offs, which Walmart refused to clarify when questioned.
(c) 2012. See disclaimers.