How an Abandoned Wal-Mart Became an Award-Winning Public Library

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 7 2012 10:24 AM

How an Abandoned Wal-Mart Became an Award-Winning Public Library

walmartlibrary1a
The McAllen Public Library in Texas

©Lara Swimmer Photography

From 12-packs of paper towels to The Count of Monte Cristo: A deserted Wal-Mart in McAllen, Texas, is stocking a new kind of item on its shelves.

Minneapolis-based architects Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. breathed fresh life into the warehouse, about as big as twoand-a-half football fields, late last year, when they repurposed it as the country’s largest single-story public library. (Alas, it’s not America’s biggest public library, despite what you might have read. That honor goes to the Library of Congress.) When a Wal-Mart retailer moved to a larger facility down the road, the city purchased the old building and created the McAllen Public Library.

The plan was to establish a community gathering place, and it worked. Interim director Kate Horan says that the numbers of new registrations and book loans at the library are “through the roof.” “We used to be really busy on Sunday afternoons,” she added. “Now, every day is a Sunday afternoon.”

walmartlibrary2a
The McAllen Public Library inTexas

©Lara Swimmer Photography

Advertisement

Some of the library’s more charming features include what Horan calls “mega-pendants,” or large signs emblazoned with genre names and designed to make the lofty ceilings seem a little lower. Under them are reading nooks they call “respites.” The library also features a quiet room, several computer labs, a small volunteer-run bookstore, and a café.

The pros are impressed, too. This June, the McAllen Public Library won The International Interior Design Association’s 2012 Library Interior Design Awards.   

McAllen isn’t the first city to convert a Wal-Mart into a public space. In 2008, the city of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., opened a senior center in an abandoned 80,000-square-foot Wal-Mart. The building was big enough to allow for a “walker’s indoor circuit.” According to a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the town purchased the building for $400,000—$800,000 below asking price—after it stood empty for several years.

walmartlibrary3a
The McAllen Public Library in Texas

©Lara Swimmer Photography

And it’s not just Wal-Mart stores that towns are taking back. Abandoned big-box stores are being repurposed across the country. Oberlin professor Julia Christensen documented ten such conversions in her 2008 book, Big Box Reuse, and a Wiki she set up shows as many as 27. Her website tells the story a North Carolina K-Mart turned charter school, a Florida Winn-Dixie grocery store turned chapel, and a Kentucky Wal-Mart turned court house, among others.

Daniel Lametti is a Montreal-based writer and neuroscientist.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Culturebox

The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

A Comically Inane Court Opinion Just Upheld Puerto Rico’s Gay Marriage Ban

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM What Happens When You Serve McDonald’s to Food Snobs and Tell Them It’s Organic
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM South Florida’s Desperate Secession Movement
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.