All I wanted to do last week was visit the public library, but by the time I got out of work on any given night, the closest branch was closed. On Friday I decided to actually leave the building for “lunch” in order to go to the tiny little branch six or seven blocks away… when, to my horror, I discovered that I had forgotten my library card at home. It’s bad enough when the library’s closed, but to be in it and be unable to borrow books, that I couldn’t handle. I’d have to wait another day.
So it wasn’t until Saturday, library card found, that I was able to make my trip. Even better, I could visit the Jefferson Market Branch on Avenue of the Americas, my favorite public library in the city. The building had originally been a courthouse and then a police academy before it was saved from demolition to become a part of the New York Public Library system. To get to the books on the second floor, I always take the spiral staircase, never the elevator, as the stone stairs wind up and up, light from the stained-glass windows showing the way. Upstairs is the reading room, with new fiction and nonfiction along one wall, and then the next room filled with shelves of fiction. As it was a semi-rainy day, there were many people inside, some—clearly—with no interest in the books but nowhere else to go. But also there were the avid readers, the people who, like me, peruse the “New” shelves with fierce attention. I always find one or two people like me by those shelves—some take the competition for a certain book so seriously they try to block the shelves from anyone else while they make their selections. I like to go backward, starting with the Zs and on up to the As. The spines glimmer and shine from their glossy cases and it’s all I can do not to stake out a spot on the floor and peek into all of them.
I’ve always been this way about libraries. I mark my past in this city by my neighborhood library, depending on where I lived. When I first lived in New York, the spring and summer I was 19, I lived near the Bloomingdale Branch uptown—not at all impressive. It looked like a trailer set off from the street, and the book selection was more suited for kids. Still, I’d visit at least twice a month, attacking the “New” shelves with the ferocity described above.
Back then, I had heard about the grand public library, guarded by lions, in midtown, so I visited but was confused about where to find the books. I didn’t understand the difference between a research library and a lending library, I guess. The lending library, the Mid-Manhattan Branch, was across the street. Years later, I would have a job on that very block—close proximity to that library was the only good thing about the job. I’d escape during lunch and just sit in the stacks, gathering my breath. I don’t miss the job, but I do miss the great fiction selection at that library. It’s worth a trip to Midtown.
In graduate school, the university library was like no other, but university libraries have books with boring non-shiny bindings. The spines all look alike in the low light of the stacks, taking away some of the usual excitement. It was the highlight of my time in grad school when a New York Public Library branch opened up at the corner of my very own street. It became a daily ritual, visiting whenever the branch was open, just to see what new novels were in.
But back to my trip to the Jefferson Market Branch this Saturday. I decided on a theme: I would borrow only short-story collections, since I’m in the midst of trying to write my own and, well, because themed library trips are fun. I’d take only short-story collections that I haven’t read, and mostly those by contemporary authors. I had two hours until closing… Go!
There was such pleasure in choosing the books. My stack of possibilities became so enormous that I couldn’t lift it myself and had to leave it on the windowsill while I kept on eyeing the shelves. A man was asleep, chair back, feet up, in front of the “C” shelf, but I didn’t let that stop me. Finally, I sat at a table beside a man doing complicated math equations and chose between over 20 short-story collections. Some, I realized, I had read already. Some, I discovered, upon popping them open and peeking at a few first lines, wouldn’t be to my liking. And, besides, I really couldn’t take more than I could carry the ten blocks home.
I came away with these spoils:
That’s: Things That Fall from the Sky by Kevin Brockmeier • Unkempt by Courtney Eldridge • A Place I’ve Never Been by David Leavitt • Beautiful Girls by Beth Ann Bauman • A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom • Lost Lake by Mark Slouka • Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived by Lily Tuck • The Unsettling by Peter Rock • A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
I’m only halfway through the first book but, already, I can’t wait for my next trip.