Every decent town has a library. They may have strange opening hours and be in varying states of aging, but they’re still at their core – a safe haven.
I wonder if the original creators of the library were aware of how impactful their decision to hire out books for free would be. To give the masses access to literature, art, science, maths, biographies, history – all with the swipe of a library card.
As a child, our town library was a sacred space. An oasis of musty books and humming air conditioning. There was an area set up specifically for children’s books and Young Adult novels. Picture books, stories, series. The covers were facing forward and stacked in rows. Sometimes you’d find a gem stashed behind something totally average.
You never knew exactly what you’d find in the library. There was no online catalogue, or written one at that, that we could browse through to secure our next good reads. Checking out books was a chance event, supported by frequent visits and tucking potential candidates under your arm whilst you roamed.
The library wasn’t big, by any means – but was larger than any store in town. You never know who you’d run into once escaping into its brick walls.
I’d lock my bike up at the side of the building, silently praying that no one decided to steal it that day. If I cycled a little further down the road, I’d reach the gymnasium, and beyond that, the sea. It wasn’t a bay I could swim in – hell, even dipping your toes in was an invitation for the crocs – but it was comforting knowing it was so close by.
The lighting wasn’t flattering, but no one cared about such details. We were here for the books. And the CDs. And the rumpled magazines. And if you were really desperate – the four ancient computers that still took floppy disks as well as USBs.
It was divided into two sections – an open space where the computer bay sat in the centre, with CDs and magazines flanking the wall to the right. Beyond the computers was a section that was always dark and never open to the public (or at least not to children my age). Past the computers was the children’s reading corner, and the YA wall, sectioned off by low metal shelves. Next to that were the stacks.
Almost touching the roof, these aisles were where the good stuff lived. Thrillers, crimes, romances, horrors, dramas – everything divided neatly into fiction and non-fiction, A-Z. I rarely borrowed from this section until I was well into my teens – it was for adults, after all. I would often gaze at the spines, picking out anything with an interesting font, title, or author’s name. Nothing was familiar and that’s why I loved it.
It was in these shelves that I discovered my love for crime/thrillers, which would later extend to a lengthy obsession with Criminal Minds, and a brief desire to become a criminal psychologist at the BAU.
If you strolled beyond the stacks, you would reach the weird stuff. Papers on the history of the town. Old photos, neatly arranged in files. Various fish and reptiles preserved in formaldehyde, glowing eerily under the fluorescent bulbs. There was a spacious round table next to the dead things, presumably for those doing research on the town, but I never felt comfortable utilising it.
The animals mostly creeped me out, but I was undeniably fascinated too – what was the point of keeping them? Why were they on display? Why were they hidden at the back? I never had the guts to ask.
I can’t recall ever going there with friends, although I’m sure I did at some point or another. I remember involuntarily bringing my brothers one afternoon, which resulted in spending the entire time whining at them to hurry up or to not embarrass me.
Is it wrong not to remember a single librarian’s name? I used to look up to them immensely – the power they had over the town. They were in charge of what books we read, and when, and were the only people authorised to order new ones. Approaching the desk at the end of each visit seemed so grand, particularly because they had a connecting door to the council office. Everything seemed very official once you were at the desk.
Once I had checked out the maximum amount of books, and had carefully transported them home in my backpack, I revered in filling out the log cards. Using my favourite pen, I would transcribe the date and my name on a fresh line, careful not to make any smudges. My index finger would linger over names I knew, or thought I knew, absentmindedly seeking out familiarity.
It was then time to indulge. I had a very animated childhood, with a lot of time being spent outdoors, but I’ll always remember the reading. On the trampoline. In the hammock. On the grass. In the boat. In a camp chair. In the car. On my bedroom floor. There was never a bad spot for losing myself in another world.
After my courtesy two weeks, I would fill up my backpack, strap on my helmet, and begin the voyage to start the entire cycle again.
I’ve never acknowledged how grateful I am to that library. It gave me an escape that I couldn’t access otherwise. It was quiet, it was cool – two things that were surprisingly hard to find in a small town. It was my retreat.