(Ed. Note: We suspect that every dedicated reader and book lover remembers at least one library from his or her past in a special way. We hope that the following article will stir up some of those memories among readers of The Standard. We hope further that some of you will be moved to share them with us in future issues. Send your paeans to libraries past, or present, to firstname.lastname@example.org .)
The old adage that you never forget your first love holds true for libraries, too. I still have fond memories of the McGregor Public Library at 12244 Woodward Avenue, Highland Park, Michigan, even though it’s been nearly 70 years since I applied for my first library card there and more than 60 years since my last visit.
I recall being awed by my first sight of the imposing granite and limestone building. Built in the Beaux Arts style and designed by noted New York City library architects Tilton and Githens, the rectangular two-story library sat in a park-like setting about half the size of a large city lot. Magnificently crafted doors topped by a striking half-dome (see accompanying photos) sat squarely in the center of the McGregor’s symmetrical façade.
Inside, even more wonders awaited a seven-year-old newly initiated into the wondrous world of reading and books. I craned my neck to look up at the soaring ceiling of the central hall. I marveled at the rows upon rows of books that stood upright on the orderly ranks of shelves, more books than I had thought existed! I walked home beside my father in a near daze, clutching my new library card in one hand, my quota of four books from the Children’s Section in the other.
The McGregor was less than a mile from our flat over a store at 12023 Hamilton, where we lived when Dad and I walked to the library. It was only a tad further, perhaps a mile, when we moved to a larger two-family flat at 377 Richton a year or so later. By then, I was able to walk to that magic structure on my own. (Remember that this was the mid-1930s, when the streets were safer for kids in those days.) I made the trek often.
Librarians stamped your library card with the return due date then, once for each book you took home. My cards filled up rapidly as I progressed from simple “See spot run” kids’ books to Black Beauty, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, then to the likes of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Alfred Payson Terhune’s dog stories, and Zane Gray westerns.
My crowning McGregor reading achievement came in the summer of 1936. All my friends were away at camp or visiting relatives. I walked to the McGregor after breakfast on Monday and read a Tom Swift book in the library. I took out four more titles (all in the Treasure Island, Nancy Drew orLad, a Dog category) read them at home that afternoon and evening. I did the same thing Tuesday and every day for the rest of the week, going through 30 books in six days. If I had been the librarians’ pet before, now I was their reading poster boy!
One of the librarians introduced me to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazon books. I was enthralled, and a small sailboat replaced a Schwinn bicycle as the top item on my wish list. (An impossible dream in the midst of the Depression.) Other librarians turned me on to other books and authors. They were delighted when I returned the books with my thanks for their recommendations.
Part of my voracious reading habit developed from the fact that I suffered from severe asthma attacks in my youth. This meant that I was sick a lot, often missing a quarter to one-third of the school year from grades one through eight. No television then, of course, so I spent sick days reading and listening to the radio. (I’m still a radio buff, especially the oldies and NPR.) When I couldn’t go to the library myself, my hard-working father often stopped at the McGregor on his way home from work to get me books.
At age 12, as I recall, I became eligible for an intermediate library card. This meant you could take out six books at a time, two from the adult section and four from the children’s section. At about the same time, I came under the care of a doctor located just a few blocks from Detroit’s Main Library at 5201 Woodward Avenue. I took the bus to his office three times every two weeks-and visited the Main Library to take out my six-book quota every time.
The treasury of books here was even greater than at the McGregor. And like many an adolescent swain, I began to forsake my first love for the lure of a new, more enticing romance.
My reading horizons broadened considerably as my tastes became wildly eclectic. I discovered such varied authors as P.G. Wodehouse, Thorne Smith, Kenneth Roberts, James T. Farrell, Owen Wister, Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Dumas, Conan-Doyle and Upton Sinclair, to name a few. My non-library reading habits, however, leaned to Doc Savage Magazine, daily paper “funnies” and early comic books. One such wasThe Phantom. (He made his debut on February 17th, 1936 and was the first costumed hero.)
My next well-remembered library was a tiny one, compared to the McGregor or Detroit’s Main Library. Housed in a small room of the USO at Camp Wolters, Texas, it amounted to a few shelves stocked with donated books. I recall it because it was responsible for one of the most prodigious reading feats of my life.
I was now an 18-year-old private going through an extended infantry basic training that emphasized jungle warfare and amphibious invasions. One Sunday when we had a rare break from our arduous schedule, I browsed the meager collection at the USO and spotted a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. One of my best friends back in Detroit had been urging me to read Wolfe, so I signed up to borrow it. Wolfe’s prose, often akin to poetry, and his characters, captured me completely.
At times, I got up from my bunk and paced the aisle of the near-empty barracks, reading some of Old Man Gant’s passages aloud. This understandably cemented my reputation as the company character. The only thing that elevated me somewhat in the eyes of my fellow soldiers was that I was on the battalion boxing team, and eventually won the camp flyweight division championship.
(An added, admittedly non-book related footnote: Maximum flyweight limit was 114 pounds. Yet once some guys in my platoon weighed me just before we set out on one of our many 25-mile full field pack marches, I tipped the scale at 211 pounds. My pack, rifle, ammo, cans of C rations and other gear totaled just 19 pounds less than my body weight.)
I finished Angel by mid-afternoon and hurried back to the USO to return it and take Of Time And The River, which I had spotted during my earlier browsing. I started reading while walking back to the barracks, then kept on through the afternoon and into the night. I finished the book in the latrine after “Lights Out,” about 10 p.m. (I later read everything Wolfe wrote, and everything I could find written about him. This made it easy to do an in-depth paper on him later when I was a junior in college. My teacher gave me an A+ and said the paper needed only a little more work to qualify as a Masters thesis.)
Libraries continued to be important in my life, but a career, marriage and children overshadowed them. Most were commonplace and forgettable, a blur in my memory. One exception were the libraries at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn MI, where I learned a lot that that helped me tremendously during my later years as an auto and racing writer/editor.
I moved to California in 1966 as editor of a new Petersen Publications camping and RV magazine, Wheels Afield. When my family and I moved into a home in a west San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, I soon discovered that one of the location’s benefits was the nearby Woodland Hills Branch Library. Shaded by trees, the one-story building featured a red brick and glass exterior and was contemporary and “homey” at the same time. The same was true of its charming, comfortable interior. It quickly became a magnet for the family. (My girls, 15 and 13, and 8-year-old son had inherited the reading gene.)
The original Woodland Hills library was torn down in 2000 and replaced by a new one that opened in August 2003. It has two stories, is twice the size of the old facility, but retains hints of the previous building. The trees remain, by request of the community, and the exterior again is red brick and glass. The new library and I are going through a flirtation stage right now, but I’m sure a lasting love will develop. I’m active in the Friends of the Library again, serving on the executive board and as newsletter editor.
Another library has captured my heart in recent years also. My wife and I have spent a week or two in Palm Springs, California, in recent years. We discovered that the Palm Spring Library Center on Sunrise Way is a true treasure.
In my case, love of libraries, books and reading literally (pun intended) shaped my life. By age 10 or 11, I decided I wanted to be a writer. And that’s what I became. My first paid writing job was on a small Michigan weekly paper in October 1947. I’ve made my living as a writer, editor and journalist ever since. Now, 56 years later, I look back on a career that has been varied, challenging and rewarding in many ways. I never got rich but seldom was bored and always got by. And I can thank the McGregor, my first library love, for planting the seed that grew into a lifelong vocation.