I’ve been thinking a lot about the library of my youth. I’ve been remembering all the time I spent there, on the long, blue sectional couch that wrapped all the way around the front lobby of the library, from the children’s section to the foyer. I’ve been remembering the glass blocks that encircled the Check-Out desk, where I’d tell the librarian that I forgot my card again, or when I had to call my mom for a ride home when I didn’t have a quarter, or when there was a book I needed help getting off the high shelf. I spent a lot of time at the Leavenworth Public Library as a kid. My middle school was a block from the library, so sometimes I’d be able to talk my mom into walking to the library after school and hanging for a few hours. The library was the first place I discovered internet. It was where I did my volunteer time for student council, it was the place I found the New York Times, and the Kansas Room, and the pleasure of curling up with a book—that was way too advanced for me—on one of the pink sofas in the back of the library, where adults read the newspapers, and plants and statues stood watch over the weird, curved windows overlooking 4th Street.
When I was a kid there was a ten book limit when you checked out books from the library. This was always hard for me, both because I am an avid reader, and because I suffer from FOMO. What if the ten books I decided on were not as good as I had hoped? What if my mom won’t bring me back for another week? What if I read them all in one day? I was anxious as a kid. The reference section was a good place for me. It had small shelves, easily accessible, and I never had to worry about which book to check out because you couldn’t take any of them home with you. Same with the periodicals. So I spent most of my time thumbing through those sections, with my stack of ten books waiting for me at checkout.
I’m not sure the architecture of the building, but I can see it clearly, it’s black overhang shielding me just enough from the rain on a wet and cold Saturday morning when my mom would swing her 1972 Dodge Cornett into the lot for me to race up and shove my books into the return. There were always plants planted just outside the door, and just inside was a water fountain that I stopped at a number times for a gulp after I had walked the block from East Middle School.
The original public library in Leavenworth, like many other small towns, was built in 1900 from funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. It was a two-story brick and limestone building, originally named the Carnegie Library, and it was, and still is, designated on the state and national registry of historic places. The library of my youth was built in 1987, and when it was brand new it was one of the most unique buildings in our small town.
Not much had changed in the library the last time I visited, but that was maybe ten years ago. There were still the same old blue chairs on the small desks for studying. The same glass blocks around the offices behind the check-out desk, and the same pink chairs in the back. The same plants. The same statues. The same weird, curved windows. And of course, the same smell. That old, musty library smell. I’ve come to love that smell, and as of late, miss it a little.
The library is actually two stories, but most people didn’t know that because most people didn’t venture upstairs. Upstairs was mainly just administrative offices, but once or twice as a kid I’d meander to the elevator, wait for the beep, then head upstairs. It was always quiet up there, always neat as a pin. Always a little dark. It wouldn’t take long for me to become afraid that someone would catch me and I would race back down the stairs on the north side. It always felt like a close call.
The year I spent volunteering at the library, seventh grade I believe, was spent mostly shelving books, living and dying by Dewey Decimal. I also got to spend a bit of time in the kid’s room, where I would sometimes cut out shapes for children to glue together, or help little ones find the book they were looking for. I usually got suckered into a corner by a kids’ book myself, and would lounge on the giant bean bag chairs with a Sesame Street reader until the cart was full of books to be shelved again. Volunteer of the year right there!
It’s a little funny, but I don’t know why I am telling you all this today. I don’t know why over the last few months I have been drawn to old buildings. The ones I knew growing up. Why the places we spent time in as a child, end up being so important to us as adults. And maybe they aren’t. Maybe I’m weird. Either way, sometimes, when I can’t find a comfy spot to read my borrowed book of essays, or I walk into a fancy, new library around my new town, I can’t help but wish I was back in Leavenworth. On one of those musty, pink couches. A secret bag of Doritos in my book bag, and the current copy of the Kansas City Star on my lap. Trying to figure a ride home. An escape from that town. A way out of that life. Maybe that is exactly what the library is for.