Portola Has the Coolest Librarian in San Francisco

You can't be more dedicated to the kids than Nicole Termini Germain

“If you don’t know how a seed library works, patrons can come and say, ‘Oh, I need some chard for my garden,’ and they put a few seeds into an envelope,” says Nicole Termini Germain, the branch manager and children’s librarian of the Portola Branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

She has a meticulously labeled card catalog in the library where, in theory, patrons come back weeks or months later to replenish the stocks of radish, broccoli, fruits, and flowers. It doesn’t always happen, though.

“I don’t send them to library jail,” she says of her scofflaws. “If they bring it back, awesome. If not, that’s OK, they’re greening the neighborhood even more.”

Portola is already a very green neighborhood, and gardening plays into the history of Germain’s branch, which reopened in 2009 in its current home at 380 Bacon St. (Prior to that, it had been in several storefronts on San Bruno Avenue, at one point getting evicted by what can only be the paradigmatic crotchety landlord.) The Portola Garden Tour, which continues to this day, funding a horticulture program at City College and appearing in spreads of Sunset, initially began as a way to fund the books, media, and play-spaces that fill this well-loved and much-used facility. And the seed library of which Germain is so proud is one of only two in the city, the other being at the Potrero Hill branch.

People who work with children need to be patient, and an extroverted temperament is probably a strong plus, too. Germain is delighted to show off her library to anyone who will take a look out back, where there’s also a garden full of strawberries and flowers (and a prehistoric-looking artichoke that she let run to the end of its life cycle unmolested, to show the kids, many of whom have little exposure to the great outdoors, what it would look like).

Creating the garden was something of a struggle, even for a 24-year-veteran of the system, who began at the Old Main Library — now the Asian Art Museum — in 1993.

“This was all closed,” Germain says, gesturing to the outdoor space. “This door was locked and nobody was allowed to even go through here. We have a bajillion kids coming through here and we have to keep them all in this stuffy library? I wasn’t even allowed to open these doors.”

It’s not because her superiors are grinches; it’s because of people’s tendency to be a little sticky in the fingers. They tend to steal movies, Germain says, and authorities thought they’d use the side exit to make a quick getaway

“We had this whole Blu-ray thief ring for a while,” she adds.

To supplement her limited budget for capital improvements, she worked with a teacher at the nearby Alta Vista School and local parents who had construction know-how — plus a volunteer from the main library stops by on weekends with a friend to tend to the beds. Her $700 in city funding allowed Germain to procure some fresh, healthy topsoil — “the soil that was here before, the worms wouldn’t even dignify with their presence,” she says — and some fruit trees.

“The first year we had a huge pumpkin growing, and it had this huge caterpillar on it,” she says, adding that some of the kids floated ritual insecticide as a possible solution. “They were like, ‘We should kill it! Should we kill it?’ and I was like, ‘No! That’s good for the garden!’ ”


Check out more stories from our Portola issue:

Neon Revival: Portola’s Avenue Theater Returns
After a quarter million dollars in grants and community fundraising, the neon sign at Avenue Theater will finally be turned back on.

Cutty Bang: The Real San Francisco Treat
It’s a DIY alcohol adventure with a hip-hop sensibility.

Eating Your Way Down San Bruno Avenue
From Four Barrel to loco moco, the Portola’s commercial strip is extremely diverse.

Urban Agriculture or More Housing?
One block of greenhouses is all that remains of Portola’s garden industry, and its future is uncertain.

Portola’s Pronunciation Quandary
This neighborhood’s name is at the center of an oratorical debate.

Reimagining (Tiny) Vacant Lots
Through grants for public artwork and landscaping, Portola brings new life to empty land near the highway. 

McLaren Park Wants to Step Out of Golden Gate Park’s Shadow
And it will do Sunday, Aug. 6, for Jerry Day. And it will do Sunday, Aug. 6, for Jerry Day. 

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