Medicine Chest of the Soul
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
The title above is taken from the inscription over the doorway of the library of ancient Thebes. I love books and am jealous of people like Thomas Jefferson, who had 6,487 volumes in his personal library. My own collection falls short of that by approximately 6,400 books, so it’s fortunate we have a dozen libraries in the Whatcom County Library System. I’m in the downtown Bellingham library so often that some people think I work there. Next Monday begins National Library Week—bibliophile High Holy Days for me. I recently spent an afternoon roaming around the library, checking out the activity and talking to patrons.
Walking in I encounter a guy named Harold who’s struggling with a heavy carton of books. He deposits it in the donations corner and says he has 17 more in the car. Books that are in excellent condition will appear at bargain prices at one of the library’s book sales. The rest go to the free books room downstairs. I ask Harold why he’s giving away his books. “I’m moving to Florida,” he says. “Last winter put me over the edge.”
From here I head to the aforementioned free books room. There are shelves and cartloads of them, all for the taking. A lot of new donations have just arrived and the place is hopping. I find a copy of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to replace my edition that’s been self-destructing for the past few decades.
I’m next door to the children’s section so I stroll in and strike up a conversation with two enthusiastic readers, Tatum, age 7, and Lukas, age 4. I ask Tatum what I should read and she recommends the Elephant and Piggie series. Lukas gives a thumbs-up to the entire genre of books about trucks. He informs me he loves the library because they have a hundred books.
Back upstairs I go to the desk and ask a young librarian named Abby about Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Testaments. Abby consults her computer, discovering that the book hasn’t been released yet. She promptly orders it and puts my name down for notification when it arrives. How’s that for service! When I tell her it’s a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (or what I call Mike Pence’s America) we compare notes on the addictive creepiness of the Hulu television series.
I next go over to pick up a DVD from the “Hold” shelves, a copy of Samuel Fuller’s 1953 classic film noir Pickup on South Street. I love this moody genre and have found all the best ones in the DVD section, everything from Double Indemnity to The Third Man.
Over in the New Books section I chat with book browsers, including a woman named Debbie Jarry, a history aficionado who buys a lot of books, but comes here for lighter stuff she doesn’t want to keep. I’m tempted to pick up a few new books myself, but already have a dozen half-read books sitting around the house.
Plopping down at a table I start talking to a heavily bearded fellow across from me. I ask him what he uses the library for and he answers, “To read, to get warm, and to get away from the Drop-In Center.” He has been homeless and during his time on the streets the library has been a haven. “The librarians are wonderful,” he tells me. “They treat everyone with respect.”
I leave him to his book, Shogun, James Clavell’s 998-page novel of Japan, and go relax in a comfortable chair in the periodical section and peruse The New York Times. I hate reading anything on a computer screen, so it’s nice to sit here with the actual newspaper without having to buy it at $3 a pop.
One thing that amazes me about the library is it’s not just a place to check out books. It’s a dynamic community center, offering such things as English language classes, adult education materials for teachers and students, computer access, free legal advice, tech support coaching, a home repair workshop, Tai Chi classes, craft and weaving workshops, book discussion groups, teenage game nights, and I could go on. I love this place.
Later, on my way out, I recall what one of my favorite writers had to say on the subject of libraries. Kurt Vonnegut pretty much summed up my feelings when he said, “The America that I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”