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Toni Savalli - She Built With Books

“So many books, so little time,” reads the sign above Toni Savalli’s desk at the Spokane public library.

Eighteen-thousand titles a year to be exact, 60,000 new volumes flowing across her desk and department to the shelves of five city libraries. Savalli hauls books to lunch, to dinner, to bed. One is always in her handbag. Stacks are on and under her coffee table.

The only thing she isn’t reading: the retirement books her daughter gave her several years ago.

“After I retire!” says Savalli, 69. “Then I’ll have time.”

Friday, after 50 years, Savalli will get more time. The deputy director of support services, the woman charged with building the library collection and the longest-serving of 140 full- and part-time city library employees, will retire.

Former Director Daniel Walters likens Savalli’s departure to Manito Park losing its master gardener: the one who weeds the garden and cultivates what comes next.

“Few people have left such an indelible mark on an institution,” he said from his office at the Buffalo and Erie County (N.Y.) Library. “The readers who browse the shelves of Spokane Public Library owe more to Mrs. Savalli than any other, for she is responsible for what they find there.”

From 20 copies of the latest John Grisham thriller to Sue Grafton’s “M is for Malice,” from CD-ROMs to the 1,100 magazine, journal and newspaper subscriptions, Savalli has helped shape what Spokane reads.

With a $1 million budget and staff of 19, she supervises those who catalogue, process, select and order books and periodicals and those who cull the collection.

She collaborates with branch librarians, staff and library users. And, she reads. One book at a time, start to finish. Since “Anne of Green Gables” and the Augusta Seaman mysteries of her youth, she has read rapaciously.

“All my life I’ve procrastinated and thought reading was more important than something else.”

What she doesn’t read entirely, she gleans, from book reviews, library journals, television talk shows and casual conversation. Thousands of book titles are released each year, but the library can only afford so many.

“When you’re in charge of development, you can’t order what you like and your friends like. She has to consider what everybody reads,” said Ron Miller of the Library Board. “It’s not an easy task.”

“The public ultimately decides,” Savalli says. “The trick is to anticipate what they’re going to ask for.”

Spokane loves how-to books and best-selling fiction. Savalli is still kicking herself that she didn’t anticipate the demand for 1995’s non-fiction “Emotional Intelligence.” The Madonna “Sex” book fueled intense debate, but Savalli defended it based on the number of users who requested it. Copies eventually disappeared or were destroyed.

“She’s a great one for listening and tuned in to what the public wants,” Miller says.

Miller was a high school student when Savalli first helped him in the hushed marble richness of the old Carnegie Library. Now semi-retired himself and a board member for 16 years, he’s seen Savalli as the link between the board, the public and five library directors.

“There’s nobody like her,” said Miller. “How we’ll do it without her will not be easy.”

There has been no successor named to her position, which pays $52,638 to $65,563 a year.

To hear Savalli talking, it’s hardly been work.

Born two weeks after her mother arrived from Italy, the only child of two immigrants grew up in Spokane. She started school not speaking English, but quickly caught on. Her earliest school memory is being set in a giant wastebasket for talking too much.

At 7, her father died. Her mother remarried Joe Durante, the famed chef at the Spokane Hotel. She was working at the hotel after school when she met Jim Savalli, an Italian merchant marine arrested after the outbreak of World War II. Like many of those held at Fort Missoula, he was befriended by Durante. The couple married and eventually had one daughter. Jim Savalli died in 1989.

As a girl, Savalli remembers stopping to use the east side library on Altamont every day it was open. She wanted to be a writer and earned a degree in liberal arts at the University of Chicago.

But after graduation, Savalli took a part-time job at the Hillyard Library that quickly blossomed into full-time work at the Carnegie Library. She worked in reference, became certified in library science and became the head of periodicals.

She’s been in charge of collection development since it was centralized in 1978. Three years ago, she was named head of the library’s second-largest department.

Jan Arkills, circulation supervisor at the South Hill Library, first joined Savalli’s staff in 1955.

“She’s the same Toni as she was then. She’s been on top of it all along. The technology never outstripped her and she never says ‘that won’t work.”’

Under Savalli’s watch, the collection of videos, books on tape and original framed art has grown. The main library has moved three times during her tenure. Most recently, she helped catalogue the Fuller collection, rare material collected by the first director. Last weekend, she cut the ribbon at the new Shadle branch.

Miller says he’ll miss what was obvious about Savalli from the beginning: her tone of equality, treating every patron the same.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” Savalli says. “The library is one of the few institutions that belongs to everybody and welcomes everybody. It’s their place.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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