Am definitely on a library roll, and happy to be there because nothing (that isn’t human) gives me more pleasure than a library.
Girl Group member Lynda Myles sent me a short documentary video called “Why Libraries Matter,” and I recommend having a tissue handy when you watch it. I don’t think it was meant to make anyone cry, but if you have important memories about libraries, you’ll cry. Anyway, I cried.
I am writing a collection of linked short stories called Room to Breathe, though the members of the Thursday evening fiction workshop at the New York Society Library always called it The Roxie Stories. They are about a little girl growing up in the 1950s, in the small (fictional) northern New Jersey town of Westervelt; one of the stories is called “The Library.” Here is a short excerpt.
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in April, 1953, and Roxie Lifton is riding her bike to the library, taking the shortcut through the Commons to avoid the traffic on South Park Road. The bushes and trees in the Commons are still only dotted with green, but there are patches of fat blue hyacinths and yolk-yellow daffodils nodding in the light breeze; long wands of forsythia curve over the rutted dirt path, tickling Roxie’s face and hands as she pedals by. The six books she took home from the library last Thursday slide around in the wire basket fastened to her handlebars.
At the western end of Main Street, the Westervelt Municipal Library sits five yards back from the sidewalk. If bad boys were to steal the wooden sign nailed to the left of the front door, a stranger might be fooled into thinking the little structure was just an ordinary two-bedroom family bungalow. As indeed it was when the Westervelt Town Council bought it in 1935 and converted it into a house for books instead of people. Founding a library was a clever idea, since Westervelt was growing and a library would help to attract the right sort of residents. However, after the councilmen had purchased the small house, hired a librarian at a very small salary, and given her a very small budget for books, they felt they had done enough.
Over the years more books were donated, some were willed to the library, and a Citizens’ Library Committee was formed to hold raffles and bake sales to raise money to buy new books. The town grew even more, and another librarian, and another, was hired. But little cash was available for upkeep, and now, seen in the pale green spring light, the library looks shabby. Its white clapboard siding is warped and splitting, and the brown shingles on the roof are curling like late autumn leaves. The interior of the library is shabby too, with rusty watermarks on the ceiling and an oak floor that has darkened with years of ground-in summer dust and winter mud.
It’s not as if Roxie doesn’t have books of her own at home; she has a whole shelf of them. Her parents believe in books. But they also believe in libraries, and Bernie Lifton is a member of the Citizens’ Library Committee. So when Roxie began first grade her father took her straight downtown to get her first library card.
“Take good care of that card, now, Rox,” Bernie said as they left the bungalow. “It’s a very important step in your life, to get a library card.”
Clutching the pale blue square of heavy card stock with two hands and looking up at her father, she nodded solemnly. “I’ll be careful, Daddy.”
“Come on, this occasion deserves a Dairy Queen.”
She did take good care of the card; she never lost it or even let it get dirty. She’s been to the Westervelt Municipal Library at least a hundred times by now, when she’s eight and a half, yet she still experiences a thrill of pleasure when she pushes open the library door, as if she’s entering a toy store where the toys are free. As if she’s going to get six birthday presents and it’s not even her birthday and she doesn’t have to say thank you. Of course she has to mind her manners and follow the rules, but the rules aren’t obstacles to her pleasure. Nothing bad has ever happened to her at the Westervelt Municipal Library.
At which point you may infer that something not so good is going to happen to Roxie at the library–but it will not diminish her love for libraries and books.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Bookends, Ridgewood, NJ
Between the Covers Bookstore, Telluride, CO
City Lit, Chicago, IL