I weep whenever I hear of a book store closing. Living in Los Angeles, then, I weep a lot, and also grind my teeth quite often when I see a fantastic spot for a book store (like downtown Culver City) and one just won’t materialize there. Thankfully, though, public libraries tend not to be on the endangered species list.
Growing up, reading was a privilege and books were precious jewels. Devouring the great Classics illustrated comic series led me straight into novels, and then it was on to the local library. Back in Longmeadow, Mass. half a century ago, we had two completely different venues for this, each of them enchanting in their own way.
Richard Salter Storrs was a famous clergyman who was born in Longmeadow in 1787, and the Storrs Library on tree-shrouded Longmeadow Street was built on the site of his former house in 1932 and named for him. To an impressionable young fan of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies in the early ’60s, the ancient library felt like walking into my own private House of Usher. Luxurious, hushed rooms, spooky paintings on the walls that always seemed to be watching you while you browsed the shelves, and a clammy kid’s section down a long flight of steps that was only missing a cask of Amontillado provided ample sanctuary on a wintry late afternoon. At the time, it also had a very stuffy staff and strange hours, but the place treasured books in a serious and profound way that certainly rubbed off on me.
Then there was the little green bookmobile, which wondrously stopped at the suburban development corner in front of our house. I can’t seem to recall how often the contraption rolled by, but I imagine it wasn’t too often, because every time it did was an event. Neighborhood kids queued up by the dozens to climb inside, and an elbow in your eye was a small price to pay for checking out another Hardy Boys volume or Duane Decker Blue Sox baseball novel. Our house had a screened-in backyard porch, and during the long summer, kicking back on our plastic-cushioned lounge furniture with the new acquisitions was one of our favorite pastimes.
If the libraries didn’t satiate us, there was always Johnson’s Bookstore in downtown Springfield, the Powell’s of Western Mass. Not nearly as big as that Portland, OR mecca, it was nevertheless a local institution. Its owner, a thin, taciturn older man in a suit who I assumed was a descendant of the original Johnson family, never failed to be leaning against a center display with his arms folded when you walked in the front door, directing customers to the proper section, eyeing hot-fingered kids, and surveying his literary realm like Nero from his upper box at the Colosseum. We never spent much time in that part of Johnson’s, though, because the real prize was out the back door and across an alley to…
Johnson’s Secondhand Bookstore! Two glorious floors of used comic books, sports annuals, and actual literature, a place where my brother and I bought Street & Smith Baseball Yearbooks by the pound, not to mention National Geographic, record albums, and an occasional old copy of Look magazine. And the best thing was that there was far less staff in there, and we were left alone to pore through their musty archives as long as we wanted. Sometimes we’d even remember to go home.
As I grew older, and many of my friends gave up reading for female pursuit, alcohol, and other distractions, I was never without a book in my hands during the summer months. There I was across the river in Agawam in July of 1974, sitting on a yellow bench underneath the Wildcat Roller Coaster I helped operate at Riverside Park. With cars crashing down hills and rattling the metal beams around me, I remained deep inside my fat paperback of The Two Towers, men, elves and Orcs clanging swords in the Battle of Helm’s Deep…