Collingswood Library Director Brett Bonfield starts the new position January 19. He and his wife, Yogawood owner Beth Filla, are excited, but say the move is an emotional one.
By Matt Skoufalos
Officially, Collingswood Public Library Director Brett Bonfield wasn’t on the market.
When the phone call inviting him to apply for the directorship at the Princeton Public Library came in, Bonfield’s initial reaction was to say “no thank you” and offer a list of four other candidates, his wife Beth Filla recalls.
At the time, the idea of moving anywhere was out of the question. It had been less than a year since the couple had sold their home, moved Filla’s Yogawood studio up the street, and renovated the apartment above it. But eventually, they both warmed to the idea.
“We were talking about what that job would mean and what Princeton’s like,” Filla said.“We both love the area and know it really well. It’s a place that really values learning and community.
“[For Brett] to be in a position where [he’s] leading one of the best libraries in the country, everyone looks at what [he’ll] do,” she said. “People take note of what Princeton does and people adjust.”
Bonfield is excited for the opportunity, but said neither he nor Filla are “personally ambitious.
“We don’t think big for ourselves,” he said. “We do think big for the people that we care about.”
That personal motto squares with the stated mission of the Princeton Public Library: “to be the community’s living room, connecting people through words and ideas to enrich their lives and help them realize their dreams.”
To Bonfield, “community living room” describes a place that connects the larger family of the town as well as a dynamic space that changes to meet the needs of the community. One of the greatest of those needs is Internet access. In an age when digital media is the means by which everyone finds employment, files taxes, applies for healthcare, and completes school assignments—but in which not everyone has access to the Internet or a computer—the most reliable, free resource for these activities is often the staff at the public library.
“There are fewer public agencies that can fulfill those needs,” Bonfield said. “With the Affordable Care Act, where do you go? When people are signing up for insurance, they come to us. Home Depot doesn’t print [job]applications anymore; neither does WaWa. Major employers will tell you, ‘If you want a job, apply online.’”
The dual duty of the library is to be both “useful and ornamental,” Bonfield said, quoting Benjamin Franklin, the founder of the American public library.
“You want to allow scientists, lawyers, doctors to be part of that conversation where everybody gets together and shares ideas,” he said. “You also want to provide for people who don’t necessarily need you but are happy that you’re there. It’s kind of a wonderful microcosm in that way.”
The best books generally have the longest lists of acknowledgments, Bonfield said, and there’s no shortage of inspirational figures in his career.
He credited the staff in Collingswood and other neighboring libraries—Mt. Laurel, Moorestown, Haddonfield, Haddon Heights, Gloucester City—with forming his concept of what the position ought to be when he was hired in 2008.
“The community was so available to me,” Bonfield said. “The chance to understand what we could do in Collingswood was really a team effort, and the chance to pick and choose the best ideas that were happening in public libraries, not just locally, but around the country.
“I think when Princeton’s hiring me, they’re really validating the ideas and hard work from dozens of people, maybe hundreds of people, if we really want to be accurate,” he said. “I’m going from a really great library, one that I think was really validated by the search process, to one that has more community funding and a bigger staff, and is able to do more things.”
Haddonfield Library Director Susan Briant described Bonfield as an “innovative, dynamic library director,” and described his appointment as a feather in the cap of small libraries in southern New Jersey.
“The energy and enthusiasm he has brought to Collingswood Public Library have transformed the library into a thriving center of the vibrant Collingswood community,” Briant said. “I am sure Brett will be a fantastic catalyst in moving the Princeton Public Library forward, building on the legacy of retiring director, Leslie Burger. Brett will be missed, but he will do wonderful things at the Princeton Public Library.”
“He’s brought a level of professionalism and competence to our library that has taken us to the next level,” said Collingswood Mayor James Maley. “He has his heart invested in it, which makes his work all the more productive and successful.
“We hate to see him go, but Princeton might be able to get themselves on the map now,” Maley said.
Beat the library director
Bonfield is proud that during his tenure the library underwent physical as well as interactive changes. Community Center dances and 5K races were equal parts friend-raisers and fundraisers, paying for modernized lighting in the facilities, a supplemental eBook services agreement with 3M, and an upgraded teen area in the building.
(That teen area was paid for in part by a 5K in which Bonfield offered a $10 discount on the cost of entry to anyone who beat his time in the race. Check out the cameo from Matthew Quick at the 1:31 mark—ed.)
Neighbor Brian Hislip built the laptop bar that lines its first-floor, Haddon Avenue-facing window; the borough Department of Public Works installed the lighting. Both helped improve the look of the space that librarians joked among themselves bears a strong resemblance to the Brady Bunch set.
“We do a lot more than what libraries did when we were kids, and we want people to know that, too,” Bonfield said. “We’re part of your life, and you don’t have to pretend when you come into the building that all you are is this quiet person who reads.”
Associate Collingswood Library Director Carissa Schanely was a volunteer when Bonfield first started at the library; she credits her departing boss with helping her to advance her career by setting a strong example and encouraging her inherent curiosity.
“I just wanted to come and do my job and that was it,” Schanely said. “He said, ‘This is a little bubble, and you need to get out and see what other libraries are doing.’ That’s something that he insists on and something that I have now come to see the value of.
“Every little town has its own library and we’re all doing different things, but you don’t always get those opportunities to go out into the world and find out about those things,” Schanely said. “That’s a big thing that we all try to get involved in.”
‘Some heavy-duty, first-chakra stuff’
Even before Bonfield accepted the new job, Filla said she’d already been planning to shift her duties at Yogawood from managing the studio itself to directing its operations.
She isn’t leaving the business; just clustering her time there into fewer, 40-minute commutes.
“I feel like Yogawood has had a life and an energy of its own, and it’s amazing, but I have had my hand in every detail of it for the past nine years,” Filla said.
“It’s not possible to do forever, and it’s so not necessary,” she said. “I’ll still be around, and have a very active role in what’s going on. I’m just not going to be sweeping the floor.”
Intellectually, Filla knows her attachment to the people, places, and things of her life in Collingswood are ultimately fleeting, but by the same token, she said, “it doesn’t miss me that we’re dealing with some heavy-duty first chakra stuff” in the changeover to a new environment, she said.
“I never set out to open a yoga studio,” Filla said. “I lived here and was a yoga teacher, and it felt right. It felt like people would appreciate a yoga studio, and everything just opened up and fell into place.
“I feel like my ability to have Yogawood become what it was, or is, is so much about just living here and knowing the people here and getting the culture here,” she said. “I grew up here. I am of this place. That doesn’t change just because I move.”
So for all the cosmopolitan opportunities that moving to Princeton will present to her and to Bonfield, and for all the things they stand to gain by opening their lives up to make room for something different, Filla knows that the move isn’t a one-way exchange.
“I think it would be really good to bring some Collingswood there,” she said.