When I was a kid, I lived in a town in the southwest corner of Kansas called Garden City. It’s 50 miles to the west of a more famous Kansas town, Dodge City. Garden City had about 30,000 people in it when I was living there, but despite not being physically small, it only took about 10 minutes to drive from one side of town to another, regardless of beginning and ending points. There wasn’t much traffic and there were long periods between stoplights, so driving was slower paced and steady as opposed to the hurry up, then stop driving I know from where I live now. Despite having more people and space than your average small town, it still felt like one.
So my parents were okay with my sister and I walking or bike riding all over town, as long as we told them where we were, and we had to make sure we were home for dinner, or preferably home when they got home from work. During school, we would mostly stay home and watch TV (The Brady Bunch, then The Munsters, then sometimes The Flintstones or Bewitched – stuff on TBS, the Super Station! before turning it to MTV’s Top 10 Daily Countdown).
But during the summer, the town belonged to us. We’d walk to a nearby convenience store for ‘happy hour’ for 20¢ fountain drinks and a candy bar. Then we’d walk past our house, past the nearby park with the walking trail we’d probably revisit after supper that night with our mom, and then up one more street to the public library. It became a daily ritual. The doors were heavy and wooden with bar handles that echoed through the foyer when you entered. There were bulletin boards with library events, town news, and patron announcements lining the walls. There were bathrooms, and between the doors to them, a water fountain with water so cold it felt like it came from a fridge. Then, to the left and across from the bathrooms, there were double glass doors that led to the large library room. It always reminded me of a church, the hush of the air muffled by the plush reading chairs. Everything about this library’s layout was circular – circular building and shelves lining the outer walls perpendicularly, like spokes on a bicycle wheel pointed in toward the center; there was a circular grouping of reading chairs along the inner perimeter of the shelves. Some of the shelf rows bisected the ‘wheel’ more so to delineate the different sections – children from adult, contemporary from historical and so on. In the very center was the card catalog, flanked by a couple of carols with computers. Computerized card catalogs weren’t in place yet, but they were only a couple years away. Just to the right of the doors, situated like an altar facing out to all the pews, was a circular circulation desk. Multiple librarians worked the desk at a time, all of them friendly and happy to see us kids come in to read so often. We’d check out books once or twice a week, but we’d go through them fast. So we’d browse for the next ones to borrow, we’d make lists, and we’d even read some, reshelve the book, read more the next day, reshelve, read, and I finished a few this way, without ever borrowing them out. Technically we weren’t supposed to put them back on the shelves ourselves, but we were always careful to put them back properly. If we just put them on the reshelving cart, they weren’t always reshelved the next day when we wanted to read them again. Plus, it seemed like making extra work for the librarians.
When it came time for me to start researching papers for school, I was so comfortable with the library that I didn’t procrastinate in finding my research materials. Usually, I put off what made me uncomfortable – clothes shopping, dentist appointments (well, that came later when I had some control of my own schedule), but going through card catalogs for book locations was second nature to me. Sure, we sometimes used the library as a refuge from the high heat of a Kansas summer with its near-movie-theater cold air, but it was a sanctuary to me as well, much like real churches are to some people.
It should come as no surprise then that in my middle life, when I find myself wholly dissatisfied with my career and its direction that I dream wistfully of becoming a librarian. Academic or public library would not matter to me. I love books and everything about them, their smell, the crack of a hardcover spine when first opened, their heft in my hand and their total portability. The best of it is feeling my son’s body resting against mine as I transport him to another world every night before bed. Slowly but surely, I’m getting him into books. Hopefully I can continue that with my daughter. Seeing my church library of my youth in my mind’s eye, all the worlds between the pages of all those covers makes me all drooly and besotted. So much imagination! So many adventures! I would love to write them myself. My lifelong dream has always been to be a writer, a published author. In college, when the realities of living on my own and supporting myself landed in my lap, I changed my major from English to Accounting out of fear of starvation. I know now stability and a steady paycheck don’t have to be dream killers, though mine have been. I probably will never write a book. If I do, it will probably never be published. If it is, I would be one happy camper. But I have always loved libraries, their smell, their efficiency, their organization. And the treasures they hold on their shelves! My favorite job ever was customer service rep in a book wholesaler education department. Books. Maybe I don’t have to write them to be happy. Maybe loving them and working with them would be enough. What do you think?