“Yeah, the library is a big help,” said Estrella, whose laptop broke around the same time last year that he got laid off from a job at Oakland International Airport. “It’s kind of hard to spend a lot of money on a computer right now.”

For libraries, nothing brings in patrons like a recession.

Say what you want about the selection or the wait time, when money gets tight, the library beats the pants off of Netflix, Barnes & Noble, AT&T and Comcast.

Sure enough, circulation is up at libraries across southern Alameda County, and the rise started last fall — the same time the stock market tumbled and layoffs started piling up. Last August, libraries in Fremont, Newark and Union City actually reported lower circulation than in August of 2007. But by November, circulation rates far outpaced those of the previous year.

Fremont’s main library reported a circulation of 125,994 items in November compared with 121,206 items the previous November. In Newark, circulation increased from 22,421 to 24,135 and in Union City it increased from 34,116 to 36,675 comparing the same months.

In Hayward, circulation was up from 74,992 in November 2007 to 77,749 last November.