Saturday, January 28, 2012
Like a kind of Sanctuary
Sometime about third grade my folks made me go to Sunday School at the Downingtown Methodist Church on Creek Road. They must have figured I was old enough to walk the length of our street to attend, but they sure didn't go to church. I think they might have shown up on Easter and Christmas, maybe. They did come one Sunday when I played a tree in some kind of pageant.
I didn't much cotton to going myself, but I wasn't asked.
The place I came to accept as my church, or my sanctuary, was the building pictured. This was the Downingtown Public Library and it contained magic. It held books, lots and lots of books.
It was and is a lovely building, still there and still a library as far as I know. It sat directly across from the home of one of my best friends, Staurt Meisel. It was built of stone over which ivy crawled from the yard to the roof. Fronting the yard was a stone wall. I use to walk atop this wall and feel so daring, it seemed high and dangerous. When I went back as an adult I was embarrassed to think its two foot high cliffs frightened me.
The building has a history. it was built to house Dr. William A. Todd and his new wife, Ann Downing. It was constructed in 1800 and served as both Dr. Todd's home and office.
In 1839 the house became the Mary B. Thomas Boarding School. Its use changed again by the early 1900s when the Women's Club of Downingtown made it their clubhouse, but in 1917 the Women's Club had to turn it over to the American Red Cross. The Red Cross utilized the facilities during the remainder of World War I to make surgical bandages for the troops. Eventually after the end of the war it became the Library.
The stacks were downstairs. I do not know what was upstairs, I was never up those steps. The Children's Library was the room to your right as you entered. The Librarian sat in the large room on the left behind a large desk just a few feet inside the door. Shelves surrounded her floor to ceiling. To her left was a deeper section full of rack after rack. It was darker back in that area.
When I first took out a Member Card I was not quite ten years old. I was related to the Children's Library. The big room was off-limits. The librarian was an older woman. I remember her as frail in appearance and something of the stereotype of the spinster librarian. She was strict and scared me a little. Still, I came often and took the limit of books out at a time and read them all within the week. I think I read all the Hardy Boys, several books about animals, both short stories and novels, a whole series of science fiction and all of Robert Louis Stevenson's best know works except one.
Oh, how I wanted to read that forbidden work as well as more Edgar Allan Poe.
About the time I went from Grade School to Junior High the librarian either retired or died. She was replaced by a young woman and that young woman opened up the world to me. She was so nice. I had read my way through the Children's Library, or as much of it as I cared to. I was not yet old enough, but one night she agreed to allow me to borrow books but the big room. Oddly enough, Stevenson's book was not the first I withdrew from the Big Room. The first book I read out of the Downingtown Adult Library Room was a play in verse by Edmond Rostand called Cyrano de Bergerac. I guess I was a weird kid.
After I read that I got my Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde at long last.
I spent many an evening at the library and since I was often the only one who came in, the Librarian and I began having conversations. I told her I had decided to be a writer and she asked to see some of what I wrote. She made comments and she allowed me to use the library typewriter to tap out my stories and poems in a more "professional" manner.
If I was engaged to reading books before I ever walked in the doors of the Downingtown Public Library, I was married to books ever after. I am also eternally grateful to that young Librarian for mentoring this poor skinny lad when no one else cared a wit about his peculiar idea of being a writer.