Shhhh! A Library Memory

log12The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran photos of several of the neighborhood public libraries slated for closing due to the City’s current budget crisis. One of those libraries is the Logan branch, and the sight of that old, classical facade sent sixty year-old memories washing over me. 

Until 1949, the Olney section of North Philadelphia where we lived had no library. As newly-minted ten-year-old in the early Fall of 1947, I learned, from several of my fifth-grade classmates at the Incarnation of Our Lord parochial school, that there was a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library system within walking distance of our neighborhood. If you went there, you could get a library card, and if you had a library card, you could borrow books on all kinds of neat stuff, real books, not comic books. There were even books about the recent war, a subject I was slightly batty about. 

I somehow scoped out directions from our street to the Logan Branch Library on Wagner Avenue, wherever that happened to be. After school, on a mild overcast September afternoon, without telling my mother where I was going, I set out to find this promised land of cerebral wonders, this library, whatever a library was. 

The context of my life until then was one of physical boundaries set by the fact that we didn’t have a car, not all that unusual in Olney in the late nineteen-forties. But it meant wherever I had been outside our immediate neighborhood had been dictated by the bus, trolley and subway-elevated routes of the local transit company. Heading off for this mysterious library place, I had only a vague intimation of just where it was I was going.

 

Walking west from Fifth Street on the Fishers Avenue sidewalk, I was still on reasonably familiar territory. When I went under the railroad overpass at Seventh Street, everything began to change. The row houses resembled those on most of the streets I knew, and yet they somehow they were different. In fact everything was different. I began feeling like I was sliding through the looking glass. I remember turning and looking back toward Fifth Street for reassurance, and then continuing forward into the unknown.

Five blocks out, at Tenth Street, I had been told to go to the right. The street here was partially paved with bricks something that added to my feelings of exotic exploration. To my amazement a large factory building proclaimed itself the home of Fleer’s Double Bubble Chewing Gum. That the prized Double Bubble I had been purchasing at Sam’s Variety Store on Fifth Street was manufactured less than a mile from my home came to me as a mind-altering revelation. 

Not knowing whether I was closing in on, or still miles from, from my destination, I continued warily along the tree-lined and heavily shaded residential streets hoping for a sighting of this book-laden White Whale of my imagination. I had already passed a large white-columned building hidden in a park like setting before I turned and read the sign announcing the Logan Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Clueless as to library protocols, I wandered past the front desk and began walking up and down the aisles gawking at the book-laden shelves trying to force some sort of order to emerge. Stopping at a row of low shelving, I began browsing a stack of yellow-bordered magazines with cover titles of “The National Geographic.” 

I was seated on the floor with seven or eight National Geographics strewn about me when a large lady hovered over me and said that I had to leave the adult section of the library for the children’s section. I could have stayed right there with those magazines until the place closed for the night. 

I found the children’s section of the library thin gruel indeed. The fairy tales, the large-format cuddly animal books and the so-called children’s storybooks left me stone cold. I was accustomed to stronger stuff. At ten years old, I was already a habitué of the Sunday afternoon B-movie double-features and addicted to the network evening radio drama shows. Within a year I would have a paper route that introduced me, at age eleven, to a lifelong habit of daily newspaper reading.

 I never returned to the Logan Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, and other than a cursory visit to our own Olney Branch that opened in 1949, I never went back into a library at all until well into my high school years.  One afternoon, at the age of sixteen, almost as an afterthought, I wandered into the Olney library, got a card and casually began checking out books. Ironically, while I had little or no interest in my schoolwork, my reading quickly became almost obsessive, and remains to this day, a central fact of my life to this day. Go figure.

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