Library café closes as owners allege racism, harassment

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Melanie Diaz Partak, who owns Café con Mel with Joy Mercado Anderson, spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Guilderland Public Library in early September. The Café abruptly closed on Feb. 21 with the owners alleging “racism, harassment and constant disrespect.”

GUILDERLAND — After less than six months at the Guilderland Public Library, Café con Mel closed abruptly on Wednesday.

A post on the Café con Mel Facebook page says, “I have faced racism, harassment and constant disrespect. These issues have not only come from patrons, which I am no stranger to dealing with, but they have come worse surprisingly from the Library staff members.”

The café, owned by Melanie Diaz Partak and Joy Mercado Anderson, was a first for the library.

The library’s interim director, Nathaniel Heyer, issued a statement on Thursday evening saying, “On February 21, 2024, we were made aware that Café con Mel announced the immediate closure of the café due to allegations of racism, harassment and disrespect from both patrons and Library employees. 

“The Guilderland Public Library does not condone discrimination, harassment, or racism in any form, has policies in place that prevent and prohibit such behavior, and will immediately investigate these allegations.”

Heyer said that the library has scheduled a special board meeting for Monday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. that will be entirely devoted to public comment on the issue. The library is located at 2228 Western Ave. in Guilderland.

On Friday, the library issued a second statement, saying it had been conducting an investigation and had an in-depth talk with Partak.

“The library would like to acknowledge a poor working relationship that formed with the Cafe due to the behavior of some individual members of our staff,” the statement said. “The behavior that occurred was not driven by discrimination based on any protected class ….”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, protected classes include men and women on the basis of sex; any group which shares a common race, religion, color, or national origin; people over 40; and people with physical or mental handicaps.

Friday’s statement goes on to say that, rather, disagreements on the part of certain members of library staff were “about roles and responsibilities for library staff versus cafe staff, and differing interpretations of the Cafe’s contract among some members of the library team.

“We will be over hauling internal procedures, behavioral expectations, and communication protocols to ensure that future vendor relationships are cordial and collaborative from here on out.”

Friday’s statement also said, “The Library is and always will be for everyone — but there is always an opportunity to become more nuanced in support of this mission.”

And it noted the library is “in a time of great change” as a search for a new director is underway. Residents were encouraged to come to the special board meeting on Monday as the statement concluded, “Once we have gathered feedback, we will keep the community informed of actions we take and our plans for the future. Please come if you can.”

The library subsequently posted a notice on its Facebook page, saying, “We regret we had to turn off comments as they were becoming inflammatory, personally threatening to some and contained profanity.”

One comment said, “The library staff is straight [expletive] trash” while another said, “I hope the ‘woke mob’ takes you apart brick by brick.”

The library’s notice concluded, “All are welcome to attend the special board meeting Monday 2/26 at 6 pm, at the Library.”


Allegations, responses

Partak and Anderson had run a café by the same name in Cohoes for two years. A GoFundMe campaign started by a friend of Partak in the midst of the pandemic sought to raise $35,000 for the Cohoes café and came up with $2,445.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the pandemic, the Guilderland Public Library carried through an $8.8 million project, which expanded and upgraded the library. The project broke ground in October 2020 and was finished 11 months ahead of schedule and under budget.

Timothy Wiles, the director of the library who retired on Feb. 2 after a decade at the helm, told The Enterprise before he retired that a public survey showed the number-one priority was a café, which opened on Aug. 30.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the café was held at the library on Sept. 9 with a host of town and county officials.

Neither Partak nor Anderson could be reached for comment.

“Administrators and board members have tried to protect me and take action on incidents that have occurred but unfortunately to no avail. The staff is protected by a union that ties their hands on properly addressing many incidents …,” the Facebook post said.

“My heart goes out to the very few staff members that supported us. I love you and I appreciate you immensely,” the post goes on. “Please know that the actions of your peers are separate in our minds, but the toxic work environment is unacceptable …

“As a female minority owned small business, it is our responsibility to show our community and aspiring young people that women in business are respected, supported and welcome ….”

While the library board’s president, Catherine Barber, could not be reached for comment, one of the trustees, Ted Gup, spoke to The Enterprise on Thursday afternoon, stressing that he is not a spokesman for the board.

Gup, a journalist and book author, noted the library would be coming out with a formal statement.

“The board takes these matters very seriously,” he said, “and is determined to look into them, inquire what is behind this, what led us to this point.”

Gup went on, “If there were incidents of discrimination or harassment, we would obviously take it very seriously.”

Noting that he had just learned the day before of the café’s closure, Gup concluded, “I don’t want to get ahead of my skis. At this point, I don’t know if that’s been determined.”

Heyer’s statement on Thursday evening echoed those sentiments. “The Library makes every effort to create an inclusive and educational environment, where everyone is respected and given equal access to Library resources and programming,” the statement said. “Actions that are contrary to these efforts impede the quality of the Library, will not be tolerated, and undermine our very mission to provide equal access to materials, programs and services to the Guilderland community.

“While the Library reviews this matter further, we will contemporaneously use this as an opportunity to reflect and grow. We intend to address this matter with staff and impress the attributes of tolerance, civility, and respect for differences in people, while also updating training on laws which prevent and prohibit discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

“As a gathering place for the community, we will take every action to enhance our services and ensure that all members of our community feel safe, supported, and included.

“We are disappointed to hear of these accusations and sad to see the café go, particularly under the circumstances which are alleged. We wish Café con Mel the best in her future endeavors.”  


Cordial posts

The Café con Mel’s Facebook page gives no indication of trouble previous to the post on Feb. 21.

A Sept. 11 post says, “GUILDERLAND! You all have been so welcoming. The many blessings and oooos and ahhhhs have given this loyal crew a big boost in the right direction. We are so happy to be here serving you and we are proud of our new home!”

A Sept. 25 post says, “Guilderland Familia, this has been the best experience being part of the Library and we are proud to offer you even more good eats this week!”

The posts, all in a cordial tone, typically promote new menu items, local crafters, or library events.

A post in mid-October says, “Joy & Mel attended the Taste of Guilderland event for the Guilderland Food Pantry. And don’t forget the Albany Artists Group show is displayed in the Helderberg room at the library! Enjoy a cup of coffee while browsing the amazing display of local talent.”

A Nov. 10 post announces an early closing for Veterans Day and says, “We’d like to thank our Veterans for their service, especially our very own Marine Vet Jon! (Mel’s Husband).”

Lexi’s Crafts, likened to the work of elves, were promoted in late November with the announcement: “Purchase your tickets for Santa Movie night at the cafe!”

On Dec. 12, there was a sad notice, which was greeted with empathetic posts from patrons: “Our familia is very ill and our only employee that is not facing this ailment is moving. The team and I hope for your understanding as we all rest and make sure we all come back without risking the cleanliness of our environment. We all appreciate your understanding as we close today and tomorrow to allow this healing. Thank you all for your constant support.”

Two days later, the post was upbeat and, again, grateful for support: “I am on the mend and cleared to be back tomorrow whipping up all of your favorites! The team and I want to thank you all for your well wishes and gracious offers to help or deliver groceries. Times are still tough out there and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of a solid community.”

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