Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Children's Libraries

Joyce Carol Oates' reminiscences of her childhood in upstate New York contained many memories of the library in the neighboring county, where she had a library card courtesy of her grandmother.  I remember a library like that when I was a child, with the children's room downstairs, and the adult library, up the stone staircase, accessible only with written permission from one's parents.  This was the Goodman Library, now the home of the Napa County Historical Society.  The Goodman Library and the Lockport Public Library had one thing in common:  neither was a Carnegie.  The Lockport Library was built by the WPA, and the Goodman was designed by a local architect in 1901.

The photo on the web site was taken on a bright sunny day, but if you look at the architecture of the Goodman Library, you'll realize why my memory word for this building is "dark."  The photo is carefully cropped, but there were buildings right next to the library on either side, and the windows in the front faced more north than anything else, so direct sunlight in the building was rare.  Ms. Oates mentions the smell of her library, but I don't remember the Goodman smelling of anything but dust and old paper.  I worked as a librarian for 17 years, and I don't recall ever using "library paste"!

When I was between 7 and 12 years old, I shuttled back and forth to the Goodman on my gearless Schwinn bicycle every 2 weeks, the number of books I checked out limited by the capacity of the bicycle basket between the handlebars.  The 1950 Census data shows that the city of Napa in 1950 had 13,579 residents, 98% of them "in households."  Traffic on the city streets wasn't heavy, and stop lights were few, even on Jefferson, then as now the main north-south route through town, although then there was no freeway alternative a few blocks to the west.  My route this time was up E Street to York Street, right to A Street, right again on Jefferson and across the creek.  From there I had a choice of routes, but I usually crossed Jefferson onto Calistoga, Polk, or Clay and then cut across to the library, rather than going all the way down to 1st Street; even then I preferred back routes, and I still do.

Looking at Google Maps for downtown Napa, I see the "Napa Old World Inn Bed and Breakfast," right in the bend of Jefferson Street, across from Calistoga.  In fact, there's quite a collection of B&B's in that area.  What I remember from that area is the basement apartment where my grandmother lived, right on the bend.  This was what we now call a "soft story" house, a three story stick Victorian with a garage on the first floor, next to a wooden staircase climbing a full story to the porch and front door.  Sometime in the early 1950s (Grandma Ivy died in 1957, when I was 11), my parents decided that a house containing them and 2 children under 10 was too small also to contain two grandmothers - one somewhat deaf, the other annoyed by loud noises.  So they arranged for the grandmothers to move to small, separate, apartments elsewhere in town; and Grandma Ivy moved into the converted garage, after MUCH persuasion from Dad.  She fussed and fumed that she was being "kicked out" - and then she discovered that she was alone for probably the first time in her entire life, and she loved it!  I remember the concrete floor, from my visits - our house had a wooden floor, so a concrete floor was very unusual.  And cold.

But I digress - I was talking about libraries.  I don't really remember the children's library at the Goodman very well, though I know I used it; because as soon as I could persuade Mother, I got permission to climb the stairs and use the adult collection.  Those were daunting stairs (the place had at least 10 foot ceilings) for a 9 year old kid to climb.  The psychological barrier of putting the adult collection upstairs was immense (in addition to giving the librarians a choke point to control access!).  But I climbed them, and discovered Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alexander Dumas and all sorts of other fascinating authors.  This was before libraries put plastic covers on books, so the covers of the books in my bicycle basket were always a little scuffed; I rarely read new books, and I still rarely read new books.  If a bestseller is still considered "interesting" ten years after publication, I may consider it.

Oddly, this dislike of new books is why I rarely go to libraries any more, although I always vote for library funding.  Libraries have to carry the new books and they only have so much room; so if you like older authors, as I do, you have to collect them yourself.  My collection of early-to-mid 20th century detective stories is better than any library's I've seen in recent years.  Also, of course, libraries now can barely keep their doors open.  We are cutting our own throats, as a democracy, if we restrict access to public libraries.  I wish I thought we would wake up and realize this.


  1. I remember riding my bicycle down Olympic Boulevard in Westwood (six or eight lanes, even in 1960-1962) with a basket full of books. I usually got about ten a week, as I recall. I lived one house up from this corner, and I think the branch I went to was about 10 blocks away.

    I go to the library almost weekly now, but then I'm currently unemployed so I don't have the budget to buy books. I do have a whacking big collection, though.

  2. How did you send that link to the view of your street? I can do it but when I click on the saved link I just get the aerial map. FYI, here's a link to the house I grew up in, I think: 1687 E Street. "I think" means the link; I'm quite sure about the house! I see they replaced the dry-rotted porch.

  3. Wow, Links! Up until 1959, I lived on Kelton Ave. just a house or two south of Pico Blvd. Small world.

  4. Dan, is that right? We were at 2143 Kelton for about 18 months in 1961-1962. Small small world.

    Hedera, there's a permanent link (cleverly labeled "link") at the top right corner of the frame on the street view page, I think. I'm pretty sure that's what I used.