For the Love of Libraries…
I have a photo of my mother reading to my older brother and me. I don’t remember it – I was two in the photo – nor any other time of being read to at home. I’m sure, as my next three siblings came along, and my mother helped my father run his radio and television repair business out of our home, that she simply didn’t have any time for what she would have considered the luxury of reading – to her children, or herself.
From the minute I learned to read I was hungry for books, and spent as much time as I could in St. John’s Library on Salter Street, in Winnipeg’s North End. I must have been about six years old when I first went on my own: I have a clear memory of crossing that busy street by myself when I was in Grade One.
I loved the library. It felt huge, with massive stone steps leading to a set of grand wooden doors. Inside there were gleaming hardwood floors and dark woodwork shelves and reading tables graced with softly glowing lamps. The library was the first branch of the Winnipeg Public Library system, and celebrated its centennial in 2015.
In the downstairs children’s department, wonder of wonders, on Saturday mornings there was a “Story Lady” who sat on a small chair with a handful of children pressing up against her legs as she read to us. Even though I could read the books she chose, I simply liked the sensation of someone reading to me. I felt as if nothing bad could ever happen in such a magical place, and my first “what I want to be when I grow up” dream was of working in a library. Not like the lady behind the desk, with her little date stamp and inkpad, but as a Story Lady. I practiced at home with my dolls and little brothers.
When I was eleven we left the North End, moving to the new suburb of East Kildonan across the Red River. I was relieved to discover there was a brand new library at the top of our street. But unlike the dignified grandeur of St. John’s, the Henderson Regional Library was in a strip mall, part of it still under construction. The library was down a set of tiled steps into the basement, and directly across from Loomer Lanes Bowling Alley. The floors of the library were linoleum, the ceilings perforated tiles. The shelves were grey metal, open on the back and sides. There were a few square, blond wood tables and folding chairs. And because of the bowling alley, there was the steady crash of the pins being felled, the following cheers of the players, and the thick fug of cigarette smoke wafting across the hall.
My new best friend and I stopped at the library every day on our way home from school. We took out a book, and when I got home I read it, laying on the grass in the yard or on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my baby sister. The next morning, walking to school, my friend and I talked about what we’d read, and how it made us feel. We had marvelous bookish discussions: our own little book club of two. This idyllic time lasted only one year. After that came Junior High – grade seven – and everything changed. My friend went to another school, and there were no more leisurely morning walks discussing books. I suddenly had a lot more homework. My mother expected more of my help with the housework and meals, as well as keeping an eye on my sister. There was no more time for lying under the sky and dreaming. I still went to the library and took out books, but I didn’t talk about what I’d read with anyone. I waited anxiously for Saturday mornings, when my time was my own, and I could read for a few hours before I was pulled into my chores. But that changed, too. My mother made me join a Saturday morning bowling league at Loomer Lanes, telling me I spent too much time alone, reading, which she didn’t think was good for me.
I didn’t like anything about my enforced sentence at Loomer Lanes: the cacophony, the smell of the spray used to sanitize the rented shoes, and the outcome of my final score, whatever it was. I felt embarrassed when I lost badly, and somehow uncomfortable the few times I surprisingly won a game. I have never had a competitive nature. And I didn’t seem to be able to make friends with any of the kids on my team. I now dreaded Saturday mornings. But after one soul-crushing month came respite.
A neighbor offered me a Saturday morning baby-sitting job. My mother, forever the practical soul (and likely tired of hearing me complain about the bowling) agreed it would be a better use of my time to make a dollar and fifty cents for the three hours. I can only surmise that she thought a three-year old would take over as the company I was supposedly missing.
The baby-sitting turned out to be a blessing. After a perfunctory walk around the neighbourhood, the little boy, Terry, only wanted to play with his collection of trucks in his sandbox or in the cluttered basement playroom. I sat near him, reading. I obviously can’t profess to being a very involved twelve-year old baby-sitter, but Terry was safe and happy, his busy mother had a break, and I was back to spending my Saturday mornings in my favourite pursuit.
Libraries never lost their charm for me, whether it was continuing to borrow wonderful novels, or researching for high school and then university papers, or introducing my children to the joys of libraries, and then, when I began writing – before the advent of the Internet – doing research for the books I was creating.
And while I didn’t become a Story Lady, I did, for a glorious nine months, work in the Winnipeg Centennial Library as a Writer-in-Residence. I spent a few days a week in the hushed, papery atmosphere of the sunny downtown library, was paid to meet with emerging writers to discuss their work, and had the time and space to work on my own novel. It really was a dream job.
Pretty amazing when one of our childhood dreams come true – even if it takes over thirty years!