I love libraries. In junior high I volunteered in the school library for Mrs. Perry, our librarian. She taught me how to sort and arrange books, and how to properly align them on the shelves. I dusted the book jackets and wiped down the reading tables at day’s end. I loved the smell of the books and the lemon pledge. I still do.
While visiting my home town, I planned to spend some time at the public library, which was one of the only places with wi-fi. I was looking forward to this, because I had fond memories of that place. Growing up, my sister and I spent many a hot summer day there. We walked to the library while our mother had her hair styled a few blocks over at Lucille’s Beauty Shop. This was when kids could play outside all day long and not end up on the 6 o’clock news as a kidnapped, decapitated victim. This was when the primary crop in the county was cotton, instead of crystal meth.
I remembered the building well. It was a stately, two-story, brown brick building with large white columns in front. Inside, the space was serene, clean and organized – everything I came to love. The librarian commanded respect with her low voice. She looked and acted the part. A card catalog whiz, she was kind, yet strict and orderly. I’m sure it was in her job description. I became best friends with Nancy Drew in that very building.
Fast forward 33 years: Oddly the building had mysteriously shrunk. The columns seemed smaller. The inside was tired and chaotic. Most of the reading tables had been replaced with study carrels equipped with computers – a sign of the times. The two remaining reading tables were covered with cardboard boxes of books – seemingly donated – haphazardly stacked, uncataloged and unorganized, leaving no room for actual reading! Checking out a library book seemed almost secondary there. It was a sad state of affairs.
|Books, books everywhere, but no
place to read….
To say that it was difficult to concentrate on my writing was a wild understatement. Evidently library etiquette had changed since I was there in the 1970s. It was now acceptable to use your “outside voice” inside the library, to each other, to yourself, or on a cell phone. And the cell phone could freely ring – no need to put it on vibrate. But it was NOT ok to take a lidded iced tea inside. I was required to leave my tea at the check-in counter totally unattended where anyone could slip in a roofie. But I am a rule follower, so I complied.
Although thirsty, I learned quite a bit about a variety of topics. The first day, I assisted my carrel-mate with her spelling as she hand-wrote “prison letters”. The second day, I inadvertently memorized most of the GED questions as the man across the aisle read the questions over and over aloud. The lady adjacent to me was working on her cosmetology license. I’m pretty sure I could roll up a perm now. Do people still get perms?? I also learned the citizens were in an uproar over the high electric bills in town. They blamed the mayor.
The library workers were an interesting group. Mr. Librarian actually assembled a salad for his lunch on the counter while demonstrating the proper way to cut and chop an avocado to the other workers. I think I saw him wash it down with a swig of my tea. He was on a low fat/high protein diet except on Saturdays when he liked to eat Mexican food at Mi Pueblo. He coached the other workers on the difference between good fat and bad fat. He scolded them about eating bad fat, quizzing them to see if they really knew the difference. I wonder, did he get this information from a library book? On day three of my library adventure, there was a lengthy debate among the library workers centered around smoking. The conversation became heated when Mr. Librarian posed the following, “Why did God invent tobacco if we weren’t supposed to smoke?” I kid you not. I looked above my study carrel at these people, and almost blurted out, “But didn’t God ‘invent’ bad fat?????” I seriously needed to return to Dallas ASAP.
During the three afternoons I was there, one elderly man came in to check out books! Only one person. Bless his heart. Once I was convinced he was not a missing silver alert victim who had accidentally stumbled in, I was beyond thrilled. I heard him ask for assistance locating a specific book. He waited quietly and patiently for the conclusion of the riveting avocado demonstration. I almost jumped up to eagerly help him myself. Or cut up the damn avocado.
Mrs. Perry would be mortified.
David Allen Coe, “Jack Daniel’s If You Please”