MAXINE GORDON visits the city’s first book café at Rowntree Park.

JILL Crawford only lives up the road, but she keeps popping back to the new café at Rowntree Park, for coffee, lunch or both.

Today, she has almost melted into a comfy chair, absorbed in the giant pages of a broadsheet newspaper, her lunch plate lying empty on the table at her side.

“This is like my back garden,” said Jill, who is full of praise for the Rowntree Park Reading Café, a new venture from the city’s library service.

“There was always a café here but it was a bit of a greasy spoon,” she said. “This has been tastefully done out and the food is delicious. The staff are really great too.”

Tasteful is the right word. Much thought and care have gone into the interior. It’s all wooden tables, checked upholstery, pretty print cushions and blinds. The walls display a palette of chalky Farrow & Ball-esque paints; likewise the wooden dressers and book stands.

The menu is chalked up on blackboards – the selection, compact but inviting: cooked breakfast; sandwiches; home-made cakes; small plates of antipasti, such as hummus with bread or pork pie.

A take-out service is available as well as ice-creams from local firm LICCs.

There are 40 seats inside and another 40 on the covered terrace overlooking the dovecote and lake.

The setting is spectacular. Rowntree Park is one of the city’s gems – a lovingly looked-after space complete with duck pond, tennis courts, bowling and putting greens, adventure playgrounds as well as a skateboard park.

There’s even a performance arena. And now it has a very pleasant café-cum-library.

The brainchild of the library service, visitors can borrow, return or order books from the café, which is on the South Bank side of the park (at the foot of Richardson Street, off Bishopthorpe Road). There is a wide range of daily newspapers and topical magazines available too, as well as free wi-fi.

It is open daily from 10am to 7pm, but will follow park opening hours come October, probably closing at four or five.

Just this week, we learned that children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, has written to the new secretary of state for culture, Maria Miller, urging her to protect public libraries.

Donaldson said that almost 250 libraries were either under threat of closure or else had been closed or left council control since April this year, while ten per cent of library posts were being axed.

Against this backdrop, it is a welcome surprise to witness library services expanding in York, particularly when there is no extra money in the budget for these ventures.

So how is it all possible?

Coffee and cake is the key. In the simplest terms, the Rowntree Park outpost will fund itself through sales in the café.

It’s a bold move, a first in the UK, and it could be repeated elsewhere in the city, says Fiona Williams, head of the library service in York.

“We are committed to not closing any libraries,” says Fiona as we meet over a cappuccino at the new reading café. “We need to be more income generating, more enterprising, more business minded and creative.”

This new approach began a few years ago when, under Fiona’s helm, Acomb library, followed by York central library, were revamped and rebranded as “Explore centres”, with bright new, spacious interiors and café space.

The results have been remarkable; library usage in Acomb has trebled, while it is up by 20 per cent in York.

And the signs are more than positive at Rowntree Park, which has only been open two months.

“It’s doing phenomenally well,” says Sarah Garbacz, libraries’ manager, revealing customer numbers and profits are “three or four times” what was expected. “People love it and they keep coming back.”

Library staff worked with the Friends of Rowntree Park to choose the books and magazines for the café.

Among the 1,500 in situ are a mix of adult fiction and non fiction as well as plenty of books for children, including a stand of colourful picture books.

There are plenty of “coffee-table tomes” too, perfect for browsing over a long latte. I spotted glossy reads on tennis, British birds, interior design and a biography on Prince William. Among the piles of magazines are Q, Private Eye, Hello and National Geographic – surely something for all tastes.

There are plans to make the space available for hire and events; already in the calendar is a bug trail afternoon for children with poet Annelise Emmans Dean, author of Buzzing. It’s on Saturday, October 6, from 2pm to 3.30pm, for children aged seven to 12. Tickets and more information are available from the reading café.

Danielle Staveley is the manager. She says they already have lots of regulars. And it is proving popular with young families too; there is a pram park and baby-changing facilities. There is full disabled access and a loo too.

“Everybody has been so positive,” says Danielle. “They think it’s brilliant that their child can pick up a book that they can check out and take home afterwards – and they can get ten minutes for themselves.”

Young mums Jenny Pollard and Abi Mark are already fans. The pair had driven to Rowntree Park to visit the café. In tow were their eight-month-olds, Sam and Stanley. They were all enjoying an alfresco lunch on the terrace, planning to head to the swing park next.

Abi, of Linton on Ouse, said: “It’s a really good idea. I don’t go to the library enough. The café looks fantastic and it’s a really nice place to come. It means I will use the park more as I don’t have to worry about parking or the traffic in York.”

Jenny, who lives near Poppleton Road, said she was already planning on coming back through winter. “I am already looking forward to snuggling inside here and having some home-made soup.”