A place to belong

Most evenings, after dinner, when the house seemed strangely quiet, I ran down the street, turned the corner, and pushed through the beveled glass doors of a small branch library. I was nine, had no brothers or sisters, was a bit lonely at times, and often sought refuge in the library, especially in the fiction section.

Invariably, as I entered and took that first library breath, redolent of waxed floors and paper and patrons, I would look toward the librarian's desk, expecting to see Mrs. Hightower in her usual place, seated behind an oak desk, surrounded by stacks of books recently returned. She would look up from inserting a stamped card into a manila sleeve inside the cover, gaze over the tops of her rimless glasses, and give me the faintest of smiles. I always felt welcomed. She was without fail demurely dressed, a white blouse, a dark skirt, her salt and pepper hair pulled back in a loose bun.

Usually I would wander back to the rows of fiction, walking along the stacks of books, letting my fingers trail across the spines like pickets on a fence. I often stopped and let my hand rest on a book, feeling it's texture, running my fingertips over the title.

It was while walking through the stacks that I discovered Mark Twain. First Tom and Becky and Aunt Polly, and later Huck and Jim. I was captivated. I sat comfortably in an overstuffed chair, deep in a corner, and eagerly I slipped into a world far different from my own. At times I would pause and absently look at people quietly walking by, some I recognized, regulars like myself who sought solace or contact or a well-lighted place that seemed like home.

Later, in those same stacks, I would meet J.D. Salinger and found in the pages of "Catcher in the Rye" a kindred spirit named Holden, someone so close to my own life experience that reading of his escape from prep school raised goosebumps on my arms. I remember discovering an English author who wrote adventure stories about three kids living in England, had a parrot, and called canned food tins and blankets rugs.

We spent many an evening together, narrowly escaping the clutches of surly men who met late at night in the local cemetery. Once, browsing through nonfiction, I found a book named Kon Tiki. The title caught my attention. The voyage across the pacific in a reed boat was pure excitement. Who would think to do such a thing?

When I had found two or three books to check out, I carried them to Mrs. Hightower's desk and placed them before her, knowing what would come next: she would pick each one up and turning to the title page would read it carefully, then look up at me, nodding before stamping the card. That moment of approbation, ever so restrained, was important, beyond words, for like Holden, I felt that Mrs. Hightower and I were kindred spirits. We shared a love of books, of a place where books were found, a place of silence. But it was a silence disguised for within each book was a voice that spoke ever so forcefully or eloquently, sometimes lyrically, about the world and those who peopled it.

I always took out my dog-eared library card and placed it on the desk. It was light tan, made of stiff paper, with blue letters on top that said, "Public Library," and then my name typed in block letters. My round, irregular signature, written in ink, was just below. I was a card-carrying member. I belonged to this very special place called a library, a place of high windows, wooden tables, and countless books. A place where people came daily, some only to sit in comfortable chairs, newspapers opened like small white sails. Others, brows furrowed, notebooks in hand, intent on serious research. A place where Mrs. Hightower, a librarian, spent her days.

Years later, I understood that she loved those books, caring for all that accumulated knowledge and points of view. It wasn't just work, all those hours cataloging, stamping, answering endless questions, leading the inquisitive to a particular book or journal. It was a life well spent, enmeshed in the free exchange of information and ideas. I also came to understand that it wasn't for the pay, for that was barely a living wage. Rather it was for the doing of something that involved a commitment to an idea and a principle.

In months past, since the closing of our libraries, I've often thought of Mrs. Hightower and that small branch library and what it represented, to me and to so many others. Had I arrived one early evening and found the doors closed, a sign posted saying that it was closed until further notice, it would have been an incalculable loss. And what it would have meant to Mrs. Hightower. How would she ever have understood that she lived in a community that would allow its only library to close? Unimaginable.

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