Their beloved Library is moving on, books, food, memories

Longtime server Aileen Coyle at the restaurant,with a signed Sinatra photo. "The Library III isn't the building," said another staff member, "it's the people."
Longtime server Aileen Coyle at the restaurant,with a signed Sinatra photo. "The Library III isn't the building," said another staff member, "it's the people." (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2013

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Colloquially, people call it the "Love III" because so many remember going there on a first date, getting engaged, or celebrating another momentous life occasion there. Dozens of kitchen and wait staff even met and married there.

But soon, couples will have to seek the Library III - an odd landmark of a restaurant along the Black Horse Pike that used the same dark-brown paint on both the exterior and interior and hasn't changed even slightly since it opened 40 years ago - at a new location.

"People say when they walk in the door, they feel like they're home . . . they've arrived back at someplace they want to be," said Michael Castello, 53, who has owned the book-themed restaurant with his wife, Suzanne, for 20 years.

The pair met there when he was a 19-year-old busboy and she was a waitress. They bought it when the previous owner decided to get out of the restaurant business.

The Castellos lost their lease on the quirky two-story house that has been used in some incarnation as the restaurant for 70 years. The building owner had decided not to renew.

They are moving the entire operation - dusty old books, Frank Sinatra photo, movie posters, Tiffany lamps - about four miles to the McCullough's Emerald Links Golf Course in the 3000 block of Ocean Heights Avenue in Egg Harbor Township.

All 30 staff members - many of whom have worked at the restaurant for decades - are going along.

For some, the move from a location just steps off U.S. Route 40, one of the busiest arteries to the Jersey Shore, to the more pastoral locale of a golf course in a mostly residential area is bittersweet.

"I've had customers burst into tears when we tell them the news," said Castello, who hands each party a postcard with information and directions about the move. "But they calm down when they hear we're not going out of business, just moving."

That's the reaction of the staff, too.

"The Library III isn't the building; it's the people," said server Gail Garbin, 53, who started about the same time as the Castellos in the late 1970s. They previously worked together at the old Zaberer's Restaurant down the road, another long-gone landmark.

Coming for decades

"Every meal, every drink is handcrafted in a way that isn't found in a lot of restaurants anymore," said Garbin, who runs the restaurant when the Castellos take a day off. "We remember how our regular customers want their drinks or order their steaks. . . . We have people who've been coming here for decades."

That loyal following often results in a wait as long as two hours for a table on a busy Saturday night - even in the winter.

"I love this place. I'm here every Thursday, Table No. 3," said Bill Rittmann, 77, a bachelor who dines alone and orders his filet mignon medium, with a baked potato and a glass of rosé on his way home to Trenton from the Atlantic City casinos.

Penny Dagrossa, of Egg Harbor Township, had stopped by to celebrate her 71st birthday.

"It's sad to see this old place close up," she said. "I've been coming to this building to eat dinner since I was a little girl, when it was called Tommy Fiore's. But I'll go to their new place because I love the food and I love the people."

The menu is on a giant chalkboard in a room separate from two downstairs dining rooms. Diners order steak by the ounce directly from Chef Leung Lee, 61, who has been at the Library's helm since it opened in 1973. Leung and his assistant then carve a custom-size steak from large cuts of prime meat.

Adjacent to the order window is a wide salad and bread bar, where diners help themselves to an array of fresh fixings. Tables are surrounded by shelves brimming with old volumes and walls lined with movie posters and pictures of dead presidents. The roadhouse aroma of char-grilled steaks, baked potatoes, and seafood mixed with beer permeates the air.

Recapturing the feel

Two other Library restaurants operate similarly in Voorhees and Williamstown, each separately owned, although all were once part of the same area chain. Locations in Morristown and Buena have since closed.

The Castellos aim to re-create the original restaurant at the golf course location, where the couple have been operating a small tavern for the last year, mostly catering to lunchtime golfers.

"We're taking everything," Suzanne Castello said.

The challenge, she said, is capturing that "dark, woody" ambience of the original in the new location, which features several large windows overlooking the golf course. To stay on theme, wallpaper printed to look like library bookshelves is being installed.

Thousands of books, mostly antique and out-of-print volumes, will be incorporated into the new décor. Some customers have a habit of "borrowing" a book or two when they come in; others have made a game of leaving love notes and epitaphs in the volumes for friends to find, the Castellos said.

Longtime customer Judy Seddon, 50, of Absecon, said she certainly would go to the new location, but she would always have a place in her heart for the old one.

"It's a monument to memories. I've come here all my life. . . . I used to come here with my mom and dad when I was little," Seddon said with tears in her eyes as she realized the day she had come in for dinner was her late father's birthday. "The Library has a certain feel to it. I'll miss it."


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382

or jurgo@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at philly.com/downashore.

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