NEW PORT RICHEY
They start straggling in a little after 3 p.m. when school's out for the day. A few have guitars slung over their shoulders. Others simply bring their voices and an eagerness to share the stage with like-minded kids.
Music is the bond that connects the 15 to 25 kids that frequent the place: from the long-haired heavy metal screamers, to the International Baccalaureate kid with the awesome voice and two-tone blue electric guitar she got for her eighth-grade graduation, to the slight ponytailed 10-year-old drum aficionado who was brought up on Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley but counts Taylor Swift as her all-time fave.
They always show up early, said Ghelder Arriaga, the youth librarian who runs things. But the kids have to wait, maybe check out some books or read over lyrics, because no one enters the upstairs community room until Arriaga is done setting up the mikes, the mixer, the sound system and the musical video game Rockband for kids who are too shy to sing or play on their own.
Then, as soon as the clock strikes 4, the purple neon "Open" sign is flipped on, and the Garage Jam session starts at the New Port Richey Library.
For the next two hours the music of today's youth (and sometimes their parents' youth) reverberates through the brick building on Main Street as patrons quietly peruse bookshelves upstairs and down or surf the Web on computers.
It's a different kind of mix to be sure, but times have changed. Libraries have evolved to meet the needs of all their patrons.
The youth jam sessions, held Wednesdays three times a month, are the brainstorm of Arriaga, who thought it would be a good way to use the library's equipment while reaching out to the younger generation.
"As a librarian, one of the things we want to do is expose them to all the arts — traditional art, music, theater — because we have a lot of material here for them," Arriaga said. "I think more teens would go to the library if there were more venues for them."
The first Garage Jam was held in November to highlight the new youth music collection purchased by the library's teen council. The sessions evolved from that, Arriaga said.
"I thought back to my own youth, growing up in New York, and how we would put together these bands. Whoever had an empty basement, that was the place to go," said Arriaga, now in his mid-30s. "If you had a friend that had a basement, he had the key to this kind of thing. But here in Florida there are no basements — you have garages, so the kids play there."
Now there's another alternative for kids like M.J. Pereyra, 17, who balances her music with intensive studies in the International Baccalaureate program at Gulf High. She used to be quite shy. Now she sings lead vocals in front of guitar player Chris Pendley, 16, and heavy metal screamers Brian Deleonard and Jason Dolinger, both 17. She writes her own songs and even has her own young fans who regularly record the group's sessions at the library on their cell phone cameras.
"This is actually great," M.J. said after Arriaga recorded her singing a cover of Temperance's You Make Me Happy for a video to post on MySpace. "I used to not be able to play guitar in front of people. Now I have the confidence to sing in front of people. It's made me what I am today."
"I come here because I like to sing, and I like to watch the band," said Kimberly Parrish, 14. "It's very nice, actually, that they do this for the teenagers."
Some adults agree.
"I'm really pleased that they're having this musical event for the kids," said Susan Vaughn, 66, a retired school librarian who volunteers as a cataloguer at the library. "I don't find it distracting at all. I think it's wonderful that these kids are here being creative, that they have a safe place to be. It's a new age. It's not a museum. It's an active living place."
Of course, not everyone feels the same. Arriaga said responses to the music program have been mixed.
The kids love it, of course. Local teachers and parents seem to like it, too — especially when reluctant readers venture in to check out the books on their favorite bands.
"The kids are reading — even if it's lyrics that I've printed off for them, they are reading," he said. "And some of the parents use this as leverage. If the kids don't keep up their grades or if they get in trouble, they can't come here.
"Some patrons don't like it," he said. "But I tell them, 'We're open 56 hours in a week and for just two of those hours we're doing this.' "
That's music to the ears of parents such as Rich Brown, who was eager to get his guitar- and drum-playing daughter Alexis, 10, into the garage band sessions after following the music up the stairs one recent Wednesday afternoon.
"Do you know how cool this is?" Brown said. "This is so cool. I wish they had something like this when I was a kid."