Features & Columns

Former South Texas Walmart Shows Path to Library Enlightenment

An empty former Walmart was repurposed to become the
largest one-story public library in the US
Not even a hint of the former Walmart building mars the new public library in McAllen, Texas. Photo by Gary Singh

On a recent rampage through McAllen, Texas, the anti-man-about-town did not expect to witness such a landmark, epic, unprecedented transformation of abandonment into something productive.

To be more precise, an empty former Walmart was repurposed to become the largest one-story public library in the US. It opened six years ago, but the facility continues to evolve and blow minds, especially the mind of this columnist, who grew up in libraries and reaped their benefits at an early age.

By the numbers, McAllen is a small city, just under 200,000, and only minutes from the Mexican border. Eighty percent of the residents identify as Hispanic. It has a glorious frontier badlands kind of feel to it. Even though vast parcels of empty land appear everywhere, McAllen doesn't seem like the place you'd expect a Walmart to relocate down the street, abandoning an entire building in the process. Thankfully, the structure is now a 123,000-square-foot library, more than double the space of McAllen's old public library building, with more than 355,000 items available for checkout. There's an art gallery in the lobby, plus a coffee shop, a used bookstore and even a large genealogy section. The public computer lab contains 110 machines for the public to use. A separate outdoor area includes the Dewey Decimal Trail, where anyone can learn the system by walking along a guided path with 10 stations, one for each Dewey Decimal section—it's refreshing these days, when many don't bother to learn such things.

"The first month, our circulation went up 200 percent and it's been steady," says library marketing assistant Priscilla Suarez, who is McAllen's official poet laureate and provided me a tour of the complex. "We get 1,400 new users a month."

The interior design elements are indicative of the region. All the warm colors one finds in South Texas are here. Iconography of mesquite trees, for example, appear throughout the building, signifying wisdom and knowledge—perfect for a library. Since the library is only one story and formerly a gargantuan chain retail monstrosity, the designers wanted to get away from any possible big-box look. For instance, in the 40,000 square-foot children's area, patterns based on the Fibonacci sequence decorate the backs of chairs. Outside, mosaic murals in a patio-type area are dedicated to local community members and library supporters who are no longer with us. Nothing remotely resembles a Walmart.

Inside, the technology doesn't seem to stop. The automated book sorter, one of only a few in the state of Texas, is separated from the children's area by floor-to-ceiling glass, allowing kids to stand against the glass and watch books come down the conveyor belt. In another room, 3D printers allow for all sorts of classroom and group experiments. A virtual reality system allows anyone to don a headset with controllers and navigate alternative landscapes—Silicon Valley transported right to South Texas.

In the main public space, the general stacks seem to go on forever. The adult section is 6,400 square yards, the size of a football field.

"Some of our librarians were used to wearing heels," says Suarez. "After moving in here, they had to change to flats."

When we enter the separate 3,900-square-foot teen center, I meet the receptionist, Danica Salazar, who sings for the rock band DeZorah. They just played SXSW. I also learn that teenagers were specifically consulted as to what they wanted and needed for this room. Their voices were heard.

"Their main requests were that they could be away from the adults section and also away from the children's section," explains Suarez, before leading me back out into the main space.

Eventually we make it to the employee areas in the back, which include break rooms, conference and meeting facilities, and even a small auditorium for presentations. As a whole, the staff area used to be the Walmart Garden Center and the auto shop. The Garden Center must have been huge.

As a result, the anti-man-about-town departed the McAllen Public Library fully empowered. If you experience abandonment, then fill up the blank spaces, learn the Dewey Decimal System, consult with other people and implement some redesign, you might even get 1,400 new readers a month.