"Has it ever fallen your way to notice the quality of greetings that belong to certain occupations?...How salty and stimulating, for example, is the sailorman's hail of 'Ship ahoy!' It is like a breeze laden with briny odours and a pleasant dash of spray."Until yesterday, I had forgotten the joys of a public library. As a young lady of fifteen, I moved from city life to the a rural county in the South-Eastern half of Virginia. There were many lovely things about this new life: a large house, fresh air, scenic routes home, unimpeded views of sunrise, sunset, moonlight, and the Milky Way. The one drawback, however, has been the fact that the public library system out here is sorry at best. I have tried to use the online system but every author and book I look up is simply...not in the system. It is, therefore a bit hard to get anything done. Not to mention the fact that my card got blocked because of fines (some idiotic lost book about William Wallace) and finally expired. We share a hope that the fines died with it.
-Henry van Dyke
Yesterday, I found myself in Virginia Beach, a city about an hour away. This was the city in which I spent most of my childhood, and I have found myself with business in said city at least once a week. Sometimes I have a spare hour on either end and I can either pretend I want to be at the mall, or do something useful. Yesterday, I chose to go to "Central Library." Yes, I will persist in calling it that, though some well-meaning committee renamed it after a faithful mayor. I walked into this library of my childhood and immediately noticed they had got a coffee shop attached to the outside. Major win, library. Major win. I did not, however, avail myself of the delights of java. Instead, I went inside and stood at the desk, intending to apply for a library card, my card from this city having expired probably ten years ago. Finally a spot opened up and I was informed that though I was a Virginia resident, if I wasn't a resident of the city, I had to purchase a library card at $10 for one three-month period, or $35 for the year. Well excuse me. I haltingly asked if it was permissible to enjoy the library uncarded, and the lady told me yes.
Good. My hope of being able to spend a quiet hour and a half in research for Scotch'd The Snakes would not be squashed. I wanted information on two specific English counties, particularly during the 1930's so I wandered through the English history section before realizing I didn't need a volume on Winston Churchill--what I really wanted was an atlas. I felt as certain plummy satisfaction in finally knowing what the do with an Atlas. I mean, what are they? I had grown up thinking they were map-books, but I found that they are really eye-witness descriptions of an area. I found two particularly interesting volumes and took them away to a table. I had intended to check the books out, but I am somewhat of a tight-wad when it comes to spending money on what should be free. Last night was a rare occasion--I had no paper on me. Instead, I fished around in my purse for a pen and a grocery receipt and scrawled my notes. I'm sorry if the man grading papers across the room from me had to hear me laughing aloud when I read certain passages, but Wiltshire has a hilarious and colorful past. I am pleased to know it.
One of the funniest things was that as I sat in this library I had known so well as a child, I began to notice a smell...and that smell triggered memories I had entirely forgotten: it was the smell of a Taco Bell bean burrito...but the kind you get in a mall. And for as long as I can remember, this library has periodically smelled of tacos. Perhaps it is the staff lounge? I have no clue. But I almost busted up laughing in the quiet library at the sheer continuity of it all.
The other interesting thing about Central Library is the fact that it has a permanent Library Store. You know how some libraries have book sales? This is a real little niche in the library (it's a very large library) wherein are discarded titles you are free to browse and pay relatively little for. I came home with a hard-cover, slim little volume called The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico (first published 1940) and a book of essays on humanity and nature by Henry van Dyke titled Fisherman's Luck. That book cost me $7. I did notice the irony of the fact that I refused to pay $10 for a three-month library subscription and yet did not hesitate to purchase this unknown book, but you have not seen the book. Here is is:
Please don't mention the remains of a pink gel-pen elephant on my palm. Ahem. This gorgeous copy of Fisherman's Luck is made of blue leather, stamped with all that gorgeous gilt, and is in amazing condition. The pages aren't wobbly or thin at all, it comes with beautiful illustrations, and it is 104 years old.
"Milton and Edith
Aunt Mary Hartwell
Christmas 1914," it says on the inside cover.
I have always found interest in books that have been written in. Who were these people? Did Milton and Edith not read this book? Who is Aunt Mary Hartwell, for that matter? Were Milton and Edith a brother and sister, in which case this aunt seems stingy for making them share one book, or were they a newly-wed couple, in which case Mary Hartwell's referring to herself as "aunt" bodes well for the family relationships? I don't suppose I'll ever know, but I have their book. Almost exactly a century ago, Mary Hartwell penned that inscription and handed the book to two souls who are probably long-dead. It's intriguing, isn't it?
The final thing that clenched the purchase for me was the books dedication:
"TO MY LADY
is the basket:
I bring it home to you.
There are no great fish in it.
But perhaps there may be one or two little ones which will be to your taste. And there are a few shining pebbles from the bed of the brook, and ferns from the cool, green woods, and wild flowers from the places that you remember. I would fain console you, if I could, for the hardship of having married an angler: a man who relapses into his mania with the return of every spring, and never sees a little river without wishing to fish in it. But after all, we have had good times together as we have followed the stream of life towards the sea. And we have passed through the dark days without losing heart, because we were comrades. So let this book tell you one thing that is certain.
In all the life of your fisherman
the best piece of luck
The man humor. It must be a good book. And so I bought it, and I pocketed my scrawled-on receipt and I trotted on to my next errand, full of English counties and old books and the idea that I had outwitted the library-card ordeal by copying out all the facts I wanted.
Never despise libraries. Find a good one. An hour's research in a real book unearths so much finer material than three hours' of Google searches. Truly. I feel quite inspired.