Crossroads Bellevue, shown in these photos, isn't a typical Seattle-area mall. It doesn't have an anchor, and the multi-ethnic food court is one of the biggest attractions. It includes one major grocery store, a natural foods shop, and a crafts store, as well as a mini city hall. It's across the street from the post office; the local police have a station just outside.

In fact, Crossroads is more of a community center than a mall — a trend that is increasing as developers look for more ways to drive foot traffic into stores. Many people come to Crossroads for reasons other than shopping, but once they get there they make purchases, and that adds to the bottom line. For four years, Crossroads Bellevue customers have been able to pick up something else with their fresh bread, sunglasses, fabric and craft supplies: They can check out a book from the library.

Crossroads is one of a growing number of malls that are hosting public libraries as a way to drive traffic to the mall and to offer customers somewhere nice and relatively quiet to relax. They see the library as another way to create a mini downtown in the suburbs, where people go not only to shop and socialize, but also to do research and return books. Libraries also provide a new type of anchor to replace the department stores that are dying off in older malls.

“It's been a really positive experience for all of us,” says Lynn Terpstra, marketing director for Crossroads Bellevue, a short freeway ride east of Seattle, Wash., and miles from Bellevue's real downtown. “We've found it's just been hugely successful here.”

The library has benefited as well. Library statistics show what mall management can see: The 2,300-square-foot Crossroads branch has one of the highest circulations in the King County library system. It also brings people to the mall through creative (and at no cost to mall management) programming for children and families.

Another new library drawing traffic to a shopping center is the 29,000-square-foot Glendale branch of the Indianapolis-Marion County public library in Indiana. Open for about four years, the library considers itself an anchor. It moved in when the county's library system realized that its 11,500-square-foot local branch wasn't large enough to meet customers' needs.

Mall management approached the Indianapolis library, suggesting they work together to solve both their needs, says Stephen Bridge, assistant manager of the Glendale branch.

“They saw the library as a destination stop,” he says. “People go to a library on purpose. They figured all those people who were going to the library in the park would go to the library in the mall instead.” The result has been a win-win situation for both parties. Library circulation in its new location is up nearly 40 percent, and mall management is pleased with the potential customers the library brings to the mall. Its location, which Bridge describes as being deep inside the mall, is a real traffic booster. Shoppers have to pass many stores to get there, and the window-shopping often leads to dollars-and-cents transactions.

Eric Knowlton, vice president of marketing and property management for Columbia Building Co., says the library in his suburban Dayton, Ohio, Huber Heights Shopping Center draws people from as far away as 15 miles to pick out a book and, of course, shop while they are there. “It circulates more books than anywhere else in the system and does huge numbers of programs,” says Mimi Morris, assistant director for branch and extension services. The branch circulated 62,266 items in August 2004.

No one was sure which partner — the library or the mall — has benefited most from the increased traffic they seem to bring to each other, but everyone interviewed for this story agreed that traffic is what every business and library seeks most.

An Oasis

Mall libraries also provide a place for customers to escape from the hustle and bustle of consumerism. Instead of going home, they can take a break and check their e-mail or peruse a book or magazine. The librarians at King County's newest branch, which is inside Westfield Shoppingtown Southcenter, are glad to hear that mall management and security guards are sending teenagers their way when their behavior is not contributing to the shopping experience.

The library “really contributes to creating the overall customer experience that we try to achieve,” says Kristin Flores, marketing director at Westfield Shoppingtown South-center. “Our goal is to create a customer experience, not just to provide a collection of shops. We like to make our customers as comfortable as possible and give them more reasons to come back more often.”

She says the library offers shoppers an oasis, a place to take a shopping break or somewhere to send companions and spouses when they get sick of shopping.

“I've heard nothing but positive feedback. Our customers seem to enjoy the fact that we have it here. They see it as an extra service and amenity,” Flores says.

Knowlton of Dayton says he's hoping to attract a coffee shop to rent the space next to the library to add to the atmosphere and continue the concept of the center as a destination and somewhere nice to hang out for a while.

Mini Downtown

Knowlton says his community of Huber Heights is a suburb with higher aspirations. He has been meeting for years with the town booster club, a seniors group and the local Catholic church to figure out creative ways to give the town more of a focal point. He is glad to share how much his mall has been helping Huber Heights toward its dream.

In addition to the library, there are also some government offices in the development, and a post office is nearby. Now there's talk of building a performing arts center in the vicinity. Knowlton says his community involvement has paid dividends for his business, but it also makes him feel good about the contribution he makes to the neighborhoods he operates in. “I grew up in a very small town with a downtown core, where there was a lot of congregating of people from throughout the community, regardless of their backgrounds,” Knowlton says.

For years, malls have been saying they are the downtowns of today, but so many are just boring consumerist warehouses. Malls like Knowlton's in Ohio and Crossroads Bellevue are becoming the kinds of destination centers where people gather for more than a quick shopping trip once every few weeks.

“What I'm concerned about is an environment that is comprehensive in scope and that provides a lot of opportunities for citizens,” Knowlton says.

But he and the other mall managers interviewed for this story are also concerned about their bottom line. Most say they are charging the libraries market rates to rent space. But some malls, including Westfield Shoppingtown Southcenter and the Glendale Mall in Indianapolis, helped their libraries pay to construct their mall branches. Indianapolis's Bridge says the library also paid a reduced rent for the first few years it was open. Knowlton says he charges full-price rent for his library but also subsidizes the library through his family's patronage as a big donor to the library.

Library sizes vary, from the 22,000- square-foot Huber Heights branch of the Dayton Metro library to the 29,000-square-foot Glendale library. Most mall libraries are closer in size to Crossroads' 2,300 square feet. Glendale is probably the largest mall library in the country. The smaller libraries take a more limited — some would say more refined — approach to their collection, taking a lesson from their retail friends and focusing shelf space on what the customer wants.

This customer-focused approach is how King County sees it newest branches at the Crossroads and Southcenter malls. Both libraries resemble attractive bookstores rather than traditional libraries. Books are displayed with their covers facing out and are not shelved by catalog number.

Creative Approach

Only new and popular selections are given shelf space. Other media, such as DVDs, videos and books-on-tape, are played up. Seating is modern and varied, depending on the department. The children's section looks like the children's section of a big bookstore, where kids sit on the floor and read.

Librarians have had to broaden their minds to meet the changing needs of their customers, says Su Vathanaprida, assistant managing librarian of both the Crossroads branch and its partner library at Lake Hills.

Her counterpart at the Southcenter and Valley View branches, managing librarian Karen Hardiman, says lack of space has forced the libraries to be creative, but she believes that has been good for everyone.

Denise Siers, associate director for public services for the King County library system, says the mall libraries have cost more to set up because of their “retail look,” but once the Crossroads library started operating, it quickly proved to be the cheapest of the 43 King County libraries to run, in terms of cost per circulation. The circulation is equivalent to that of libraries with four times the square footage, according to Siers.

And all those people enjoying their convenient and beautiful mall library are also having lunch at mall restaurants, browsing at mall bookstores, buying clothing, fabric and household items at other stores, and spending more time than ever at the mall.