One of the King County Library System's smallest but busiest facilities, the Crossroads Library in East Bellevue is located right in the Crossroads Mall, just off the food court. This "storefront library" serves the diverse and tech-savvy population of Bellevue's Crossroads neighborhood, offering English as a Second Language (ESL), world languages, browsing materials in a dizzying array of languages, and computer resources. The library in the mall, known initially as the Library Connection @ Crossroads, opened in 2001 and was remodeled and enlarged in 2005 and 2006. Crossroads Mall, long the heart of the neighborhood, had been the redeveloped in the late 1980s into a world village for arts, culture, and commerce.
The Crossroads area of East Bellevue, which was earlier known as "Highlands," was logged by early settlers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then, in the 1920s, turned to farmland. Farming in the area was disrupted by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and by the post-war suburban housing boom. The area was annexed by the City of Bellevue in 1964, and became increasingly urban thereafter.
In the 1980s, Microsoft, located in Redmond just north of Crossroads, quickly began to grow into one of the largest employers in the world. The tech boom was on, bringing with it an influx of people from all over the world, eager to fill the many new jobs offered by the technology industry. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as newcomers poured in, Crossroads became the second-most densely populated area of Bellevue, next to downtown, with 5.8 housing units per acre, more than double the average Bellevue density of 2.7 units per acre.
In addition, the Crossroads neighborhood was among the most diverse areas of an already increasingly diverse metropolis -- an area where more than 50 languages were regularly spoken. Census figures for year 2010 show a 40.8 percent minority population in Bellevue as a whole, and in the Crossroads neighborhood the figure was more than 60 percent. More than 40 percent of the Crossroads population was foreign-born. "According to the 2012 ACS [American Community Survey by the US Census Bureau], about 42% of Bellevue residents (age 5 and over) speak a language other than English at home" ("Bellevue: A Community Profile," 30). In the Crossroads neighborhood, this group ranges from 50 to 60 percent.
The Crossroads Mall opened in 1962. At 500,000 square feet, it was a typical open shopping mall for the era, now considered on the small side for a regional mall, but on the large side for a neighborhood shopping center. It was originally anchored by an Ernst Home Center store, a Pay 'n Save store, a movie theater, and an ice-skating rink. By the mid-1980s, the Crossroads Shopping Center was an aging relic. "One arm of its 1962-vintage concourse was called 'Death Valley' because nine of its 10 stores were vacant" (Guilbert). The cavernous buildings were tagged with graffiti, and teenagers ran drag races in the empty parking lots. Crime and drug dealing were rampant. It seemed that the area had been written off by the city. According to Bellevue's mayor at the time, Nan Campbell (1926-2013), "'The mall owner had not reinvested and had not done anything to stimulate the economy there, and the concentration of the City's attention was on [downtown], after they passed the central business district plan in 1981'" (Guilbert).
It therefore seemed a risky venture when Ron Sher (b. 1942) and his company, Terranomics Development, took over and began revitalization efforts in 1988. Sher had made his fortune running a large retail leasing brokerage and was also becoming known as the founder of Third Place Books; he would later become even more visible for bailing out Seattle's iconic Elliott Bay Bookstore. Sher had been inspired by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg (b. 1932), who argued for the importance of a "third place" outside of home and work, where people of all classes and races can freely gather, for fun, food, conversation, and commerce.
The revitalization of Crossroads Mall under Sher's guidance included a covered mall with a bookstore at the entrance, an international food court, a giant chessboard, and a community stage offering regular free performances. The food was offered by many local ethnic chefs, rather than by national chains. Sher brought in public institutions as well as traditional retail outlets: a police substation, a licensing office for car tabs, and a satellite City Hall with services in nine languages.
In 2001, when Sher offered the King County Library System (KCLS) space at the revitalized center, the library system eagerly accepted the opportunity. Rather than opening a traditional library, this new space was conceived in retail terms as a streamlined, modern, easy-browsing experience. The space and décor were designed by KCLS interior designer David Scott-Risner as a kind of marketplace for diverse world cultures. One purpose was to provide a connection to library services for people who might not otherwise seek them out. "[T]he collection consisted of popular browsing, uncatalogued materials [items available only at that location and not subject to holds placed at other libraries] with a heavy emphasis on media and world languages" ("Lake Hills Community Study," 3). No reference librarians were on site; instead, a hotline to the Bellevue Library reference staff was installed.
Thus was born Library Connection @ Crossroads, as the Crossroads Library was initially called. The Library Connection was administered in conjunction with the existing Lake Hills Library, located just 1.3 miles away. The library assistants on staff were initially hired to be fluent in Spanish, Chinese, and Russian -- the three most common languages, other than English, spoken by area patrons.
It was an instant success. Library usage in East Bellevue -- comprising both Crossroads and Lake Hills libraries -- doubled in the first six months. Crossroads was expanded from roughly 2,200 square feet up to slightly more than 2,900 square feet in 2005, and then remodeled once again in 2006. The renovations, designed by Integrus Architects, opened the Crossroads Library directly onto the food court, created a "cyber-bar" entryway, and enlarged the space to 3,740 square feet.
A Popular Place
Like a retail storefront, Crossroads was designed to be sleek and inviting. In 2016, to the left of the entrance off the food court, there was a row of nine internet computers and three catalog computers. These were irresistible to young tech-oriented mall visitors, and indispensable to persons of limited means who might lack personal computers or home internet, and need internet access for job-searching or other essential tasks. On the right of the entrance were browsing materials covering World Languages and ESL, displayed under clear plastic panels proclaiming the slogan "Turn to us. The choices will surprise you" in English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. There were racks of current international newspapers in many languages. As an aid to immigrants applying for citizenship, there were U.S. history audio tapes in many languages.
A circular cyber-bar with eight more internet computers was the centerpiece of the main browsing room. The shelves along the walls featured materials facing cover-out instead of spine-out, to allow for easy browsing. The browsing shelves included Adult Fiction and Nonfiction, Audio Visual materials, teen reading, and a children's section with five children's computers at child-sized tables.
In 2015, Crossroads and the nearby Lake Hills Library combined for more than 807,000 items checked out and more than 711,000 visits. This is more foot traffic -- albeit far fewer items checked out -- than either the Bellevue or the Redmond libraries. The principal reason for this was the heavy traffic at the Crossroads Library, which alone accounted for more than 564,000 visits in 2015. That was an astonishingly high traffic count for such a small library. As between the library at Lake Hills and its "connection," Crossroads checked out nearly 100,000 more items than Lake Hills. Clearly taking the library to the people and streamlining its design was a winning concept.
In addition to circulation of physical items, computer usage is an essential component of overall library use. In 2015, the Crossroads Library clocked more than two million minutes of patron computer usage, in more than 89,000 separate sessions, on 17 adult and five children's computers. That comes out to roughly 3.8 years of computer time in a single year!
In combination, the Crossroads and Lake Hills Libraries seem well-suited to meet the varying needs of a diverse population. Taking the concept of a "library" beyond its earlier connotation as just a place of quiet research and study, they offer something for everyone, from preschooler to teen hip-hop devotee, young immigrant family, job seeker, tech worker, and even traditionalists.