Kim Powers, author of Capote in Kansas and Writer/Producer for ABC's Primetime Live, was kind enough to write up a guest post for today. When we first began corresponding, I asked if he might be interested in writing a guest post, and he tossed out a few ideas. Being the shameless blogger that I am, I asked if he had any thoughts on libraries. Thankfully, he has quite a few thoughts on libraries, and is kind enough to share some of his personal story.
It's been great to get to know Kim a bit better through e-mail, and as it turns out we have a few crazy coincidences in common: raised about half an hour apart in northeast Texas, both accepted to the same small liberal arts college, and we both have a penchant for Project Runway. Shhhh! Maybe I should've left out that last bit. Before I share too much, on to the post...
It was home, literally: the first library I ever went to was in someone’s former house. Not a mansion, but very nice. Gray-brown brick, one story, big concrete urns of potted geraniums leading up the steps, a flagpole outside, if the picture I see when I close my eyes is still correct. Surely the flagpole hadn’t been there when it was someone’s home, but since this was small-town Texas in the early 60s--yes, I’m that old--you never know. It was a few blocks from the furniture store where my father worked, and he’d drop my twin brother Tim and me off there, on his way back to work after his lunch and nap (in a Barcalounger) at home, every Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember checking out many books from there—what could they have been that early, Dr. Seuss?, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine?--I remember watching movies. The librarian would stretch out a portable screen (I can hear the metallic zzzzip it would make) and run a reel-to-reel movie on a big projector. She must have had a special fondness for Leslie Caron—yes, I’m that ancient--the two movies I remember seeing time and again were Daddy Long-Legs and The Glass Slipper, a Cinderella story. The movies did the trick; the sentimental book of Daddy Long-Legs is one of the first I remember, and I treasured it.
Then I went “hippy”, or at least “hip”--as much as an eight or nine year old boy in McKinney, Texas could go. My new book, my best friend, became A Space-Child’s Mother Goose. Not “The” Space-Child’s, but “A”; that was key. The librarian must have decided I needed shaking up, and this was the book to do it, with its psychedelic drawings and Sputnik-age rhymes. It was also the book that became the transitional item from that old library in someone’s donated house, to a fancy new one, all glass and brick, built just for books-—and a block or two from the local jail. (Maybe real estate was cheaper there.) I checked it out in one library; it was due in another. Also, between the time I checked it out, and the time it was due—two weeks, if memory serves—-my mother died. She had been a fourth grade teacher; books were her life, and she passed that love on to me and my twin. I refused to return the book. Maybe it reminded me too much of her in some bizarre way, at a time when I felt as if everything else I loved had been taken away from me. Whatever the reason, I just couldn’t let the book go. The letters and phone calls from the new library started, kind and patient at first: “We’re so sorry for your loss, we KNOW returning a little library book is the last thing on your mind, but...” I started burying the book under my bed, covering it with dust; surely they’d forget it. It wasn’t even that good. But the negotiations continued, angrier and angrier, as complicated as negotiating ransom for a Cold War prisoner (or the current economic bailout plan-—take your pick.) Finally, a line in the sand was drawn (at least in my memory—could librarians do such a thing?): my brother and I were not permitted to step foot in the new library until the old book was returned, and the fine was paid. I don’t remember what it was, but it seemed astronomical. A grudging peace was finally brokered, between the Powers family and the new librarian, whose name was—I kid you not—Mrs. Jerry Lewis.
There was nothing funny about her.
The year was 1966 or 67, and the new library smelled of freshly laid carpet and paint and sawdust and air that never moved, a smell it would never lose. The Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” came to town, and I became obsessed with checking out the Edward Albee play it was based on. I must have thought it was some sort of fairy tale—Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf?—and I wanted it to replace the Mother Goose rhymes I had just given up. Mrs. Lewis, doing her job, wouldn’t let me check it out, and instead literally took me by hand to the children’s section I should be looking in. Undeterred, I kept drifting back to the plays and theater books—780s, 820s in the Dewey Decimal section? Books about puppets, Stanley Green’s big picture-packed The World of Musical Comedy, On Stage, Miss Douglas (God, what I would give if some librarian could dig that up for me)—those took the place of nursery rhymes, and kept drawing me back, every Saturday of my childhood. I checked them out week after week, and added a few “normal” children’s books to the mix--Elizabeth Goudge, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Joan Aiken. In the fourth grade, I checked out what I considered my first grown-up book, a biography called Storming Heaven about the Roaring Twenties evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. I took it on vacation with me and accidentally left it in the back seat of our hot car. Its plastic cover melted, and another battle over a library fine began with Mrs. Jerry Lewis, the not-so-funny librarian. I felt like I gave most of my allowance—fifty cents a week--to that woman. But the books were worth it.
There would be many more libraries to come after that: the college library where I worked; a grad school library in a Gothic, ivy-covered building, so massive I could lose myself in its stacks for hours; a public library in Brooklyn where I continued to get books after school, when I first entered the “real world” and was too poor to buy anything (certainly not books) except for noodles and spaghetti sauce in a jar. Even a new library back in McKinney, which I would visit on trips back home. It had moved yet again, into the old bank where my father had taken me in hand to get my social security card. (Does that even happen anymore?) Mrs. Jerry Lewis was long gone; I missed her, despite all the hard times—financial and otherwise—she had given me. None of the librarians who were there now knew I had spent my childhood devouring their books, and preparing –-I didn’t even know this—for a future as a writer.
But the last, best library was still to come. At a certain point, I stopped going to libraries, and started buying books instead. I could afford them by now. My partner and I had bought a little weekend beach house outside New York, in Asbury Park, NJ (former stomping grounds of The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen!). We decided to check out their small town library, and it was like walking back into the land that time forgot, in the best possible way: the friendly “shush” of the librarian, the unmistakable smell of books and bindings, the giant oak card catalog that dominated the middle of the room. The library even had an original, stained glass Tiffany’s window! But best of all, they had, on their “New Books” shelf, my two books, The History of Swimming and Capote in Kansas. It was the best “homecoming” I’ve ever had.
--For you, Andi, as you work on your Masters in Library Science, and for all the “Mrs. Jerry Lewis’s” of the world!
Thanks so much to Kim Powers for taking time out to write this great piece. Visit his website HERE.