The Keshen Goodman Library branch has seen many renovations over the last few years, the most recent being the redesign of its cafe. In spring 2019, Halifax Public Libraries put out an expression of interest to partner with a local social enterprise for a cafe that would bring the community together.
“We knew that we needed to renovate that corner and the lease with our previous provider had ended, and so we really thought 'well, let’s pull out the worn-out cabinetry and infrastructure and then before we build something new let’s figure out what type of partnership we’re looking for,' and we really liked the idea of a social enterprise,” says HPL chief librarian and CEO Åsa Kachan.
A social enterprise—a business that has specific social objectives that serve its primary purpose—is somewhat of a new term. Back when MetroWorks began in 1977, it wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary.
“It was specifically set up to address people who were facing barriers to employment, especially young mothers, single mothers with children,” says Lesley Dunn, MetroWorks’ communications representative. Since then, MetroWorks has evolved to provide employment opportunities for workers from single mothers to newcomers to students to people with mental and physical health challenges.
“Were one of the first organizations—we were studied around the world—to introduce the hybrid business model, for-profit, not-for-profit, which is now known as a social enterprise,” says Dunn. “That term has only been coined within the last dozen years or so.”
Over the past 43 years, MetroWorks has run 18 social enterprises employing over 4,500 people, including Stone Hearth Cafe and Catering, Common Roots Urban Farm, Full Circle Landscaping and now the Stone Hearth Library Cafe.
“All our social enterprises are employment social enterprises, which means they provide skills training, work skills training in a supportive environment,” says Dunn. “So, for anybody who has been out of the workforce for a long period of time, perhaps has faced barriers reattaching themselves to the workforce, perhaps has some kind of ability difference or some kind of mental health challenges.”
The library cafe opened in early September and currently employs two people, but that will grow over time to give people hands-on employment experience with ongoing on-the-job training.
“Unlike traditional employment where you are expected to hit the ground running and keep on running, or you may kind of get that short-term training course, social enterprises train every day,” Dunn tells The Coast.
The cafe offers hot and cold drinks, baked goods and sandwiches. And more than that, its menu is shaped by its Clayton Park neighbourhood.
“In addition to what we would look at as kind of standard cafe fare and food, we’re also offering a variety of cultural specific food to that community,” says Dunn. “So there’s a lot of newcomer families who live there, it’s nice to be able to offer selections on the menu that they would be familiar with. Just being very respectful and mindful of the diverseness of the community that surrounds the library itself and ensuring that the cafe menu reflects that diversity.”
Dunn hopes it will help the library become even more of a gathering place for people than it already is. “There’s a bank of seats, bench seating along the wall and I guess it’s really designed to be a place where you can sit and think and read and chat with your friends, have something wonderful to eat,” she says.
Dunn agrees about the similarities of their organizations’ mission statements, saying “we’re not even running on parallel tracks, we’re running on the same track.”
With more branch renovations in the near future, Kachan says the Stone Hearth experience could lead to taking on similar projects down the line. “I have every reason to believe this is going to be a big success and I think it’s going to be something that’s on the table for every library renovation,” she says.
Over the past few decades, the advancements seen in public libraries have opened a whole new window of opportunity to be considered. “So many of our branches were built at a time when people weren’t allowed to bring food into the library, so it’s a new world in the library now,” Kachan says. “Often when we’re renovating a branch we’re putting in a community kitchen so we can do food literacy work, so that’s again something I wouldn’t have imagined 30 years ago.”
Kachan hopes the Stone Hearth Library Cafe will become a hub for people to connect through both food and community. “We see this happen all the time. People get to know one another by name, there are relationships that are built and you know, that is the joy,” she says. “It’s become almost more poignant now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, it’s the human connection, it’s that reducing isolation, and the library can be that anchor point for people in their day.”