Library leans on inmates for chair repair

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by Richard Freedman, courtesy of Vallejo Times-Herald

Nearly 50 children’s chairs at the Benicia Public Library (CA) were given new life thanks to furniture repairmen with some time on their hands.

For some, lots of time.  “After 25 years, they were looking a little beat up and not very appealing,” said David Dodd, Benicia’s Director of Library and Culture Services.  While “exploring a number of options,” replacing the chairs or having them professionally renovated wasn’t one.  “All very expensive,” Dodd said.

Thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend — OK, it was interior designer Kristine Passalacqua who knew someone formerly associated with San Quentin — who mentioned that the high security prison had a facility where government and school furniture is reupholstered and refinished for free.

The call was placed. And, two weeks ago, 23, looking-really-good lime green upholstered chairs arrived. So thrilled with the results, the library sent another 20 children’s chairs for repair.  “The care and effort which was put into the chairs and the quality of work was great,” said Helaine Bowles, the library’s administrative assistant.

Dodd was equally thrilled with the prison project that saved the library around $200 per chair.  “They’re simple looking chairs but it was a lot of work,” said Dodd, elated that no bill accompanied the delivery for materials or labor.

Though Benicia was a state capitol for about as long as it takes an inmate to smoke a cigarette — actually 1853-’54 — it was presumably when legislators decided San Quentin would be converted from a federal to a state prison.

Apparently, that was a good thing for The Q and weighed on the administration’s decision to renovate all the chairs gratis.  “They have a long memory at San Quentin,” said Bowles.  “Sounds like prison legend,” joked Dodd.

But hey, if that’s part of the lore, so be it.  “They look really good,” Dodd said, confident the second batch of chairs will arrive at no cost.  “I can’t imagine a bill at this point,” he said.

So far, reviews of the renovated chairs have been positive. One lad, Aidan, 3, sat mesmerized behind a computer screen sitting comfortably. His grandfather, James Clark, stood close by, approving of the renovated seats.  “I like them. They look good. Nice job,” Clark said, saying the chairs before “looked worn. Very worn. This is a well-used library.”

There are plenty of adult chairs that could use some tender loving prisoner care, but Dodd said the children’s chairs would be the only request.  “It’s a great thing they’re doing,” he said. “I don’t know how far to push our good will.”

A touch of irony — Dodd’s first job was librarian at the Alameda County Jail in Pleasanton. And no, he never saw the motion picture “Shawshank Redemption.”  “It was a good short story,” he said.