There it is, underneath the couch cushion next to the change. The book title has huge letters that scream not “Curious George,” but “Take me back!”
Your shame has deepened over the weeks or months since checking the book out from the York County Public Library – first forgetting to take it back on time, then neglecting to take it back and hoping it would be forgotten, then hoping for a miracle because the book was due back so long ago it maybe has gone out of print.
Well, you no longer have to practice, “The car burned up with the book under the seat!” so your tears would be plausible to a stiff-lipped librarian with silver hair and granny glasses on a chain.
And to boot, there is a chance to erase that fine by helping someone else. All five branches of the library started the “Food for Fines” program on Monday, to collect food for the needy through the end of the year.
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Every non-perishable food or personal hygiene item brought into the library until New Year’s Eve cuts $1 off a borrower’s fines.
The program started in 2007 when Colleen Kaphengst, library executive director, came to York County. As the economy in this area has stayed terrible, the need for food for the hungry has not diminished.
All the donations stay local. Donations at the Lake Wylie and Clover branches help people through a food pantry in Clover. The food stays local in York at a food pantry, in Fort Mill and in Rock Hill.
“Last year, we received an incredible amount of food from the library – more than a ton of food,” said Jan Arnold, who runs the Fort Mill Care Center.
The food pantries pick up the food several times a week – 2010 totals were more than five tons of food. Many people who don’t owe fines drop off food, too.
And in an economy with demand for help higher than ever – and donations down – every can helps.
“It makes a big difference each year,” said Bo Coleman, chairman of Rock Hill’s Hope Inc. “We appreciate it because all this food goes right back out through us to a family in need.”
Personal hygiene and baby items go to charities such as Pilgrims' Inn that give them to families with kids in severe circumstances. Each branch also will decorate library Christmas trees with donated hats, mittens, gloves and scarves to give local charities.
The library pays for all the services it provides - books, tapes, DVDs, computer services, periodicals, all of the great things that fuel hopes and dreams and imaginations - mostly by a tiny part of all county residents' tax bills.
In the past year, an incredible 1,086,041 items were circulated at the county branches. Fines are normally used for a small part of library operational expenses, but the five-week food drive is a community service the library proudly provides, said Debbie Turner, community relations manager.
"The library as a whole, the staff, we believe in this program and have seen how it helps those less fortunate," Turner said. "Plus, there are a few people who have some hefty fines. This gives them a chance to clear out the pantry and erase their fines."
Turner looked me square in the eye when she talked about hefty fines. I did the manly thing - I turned away and pointed at some little old lady bringing her books back and I hoped she was late so I could say: "Ha!"
By late Monday, the grocery cart in front of the circulation desk was full - including extra food given by one lady who paid her tiny fine and dropped off two extra bags of goods because it was the right thing to do.
For the truly shameless, the delinquent, the library slacker - me, for one - this library program is the greatest gift of the holiday season. First in line Monday morning at the Fort Mill branch, there I was with my grocery bags filled with overdue books.
Some had been checked out in October.
And after another trip to the old beater car, there I was with my grocery bags filled with food. Dozens of canned goods, boxes of cereal and pasta, more.
The ladies who work at the Fort Mill branch laughed and waited for my excuses. This has become ritual: I think a few had started a betting pool on me.
I tried the mother-in-law, saying the mother-in-law stole the books.
"She sabotaged me!" I cried.
I blamed the neighbors, saying rotten kids stole the books.
"Juvenile delinquents!" I wailed. "Villains! Thieves!"
I blamed my own kids, saying they were just incorrigible despite my top-notch parenting. Finally, I just stood, sad-faced, a wretch, shoulders drooping, and threw myself on the mercy of librarians.
Mercy, plus food, saved me.
Karen Manera, director of the Fort Mill branch - a woman with the patience of Job who has heard every excuse known to man about why a book is late - patiently checked in my overdue books. She then counted my mountain of food.
"Save the excuses, pal," she said with a smile. "You are no longer an outcast. You did something good here. Plus, you are back at square one.
Want to help?
Items donated to the York County Library's food drive should be nonperishable food items, toiletry items or baby items, such as formula or disposable diapers.
Where to donate
Rock Hill - 138 E. Black St., 803-981-5860
Fort Mill - 1818 Second Baxter Crossing, 803-547-4114
York - 21 E. Liberty St., 803-684-3751
Clover - 107 Knox St., 803-222-3474
Lake Wylie - 185 Blucher Circle, 803-831-7774
For more information, visit yclibrary.org.