I remember the smell like dried mushrooms and tree bark, a touch of vanilla and sawdust and smoke. There were secret doors that I imagined only I knew about, hidden windows that filtered daylight through rippled panes of glass dusted with fifty summers-worth of salt and pollen and pelted clean again by a thousand thunderstorms. That’s when I loved it most – on a summer day when the rain cut the heat and swelled the ditches full of polliwog water but the lightning kept me indoors by my mother’s decree.
We had to drive 2 miles of asphalt winding through pine woods, twice crossing low bridges over bronze bayous, past the tiny St. Pierre’s Episcopal Church and the abandoned creosote plant, over the railroad tracks, and onto the highway that arrowed through 8 miles of marsh, arced over the river on an ancient drawbridge and into “town.” Pascagoula was twice as big as my hometown – big enough to have a Sears and a high school and a hospital. Big enough to merit a public library.
It was an old brick building – ancient by my kid-reckoning – with big windows all around and white stone steps spilling from the front door. Everything on the other side of that door was a catalyst for fantasy and daydreams. The hardwood floors creaked like the trees they used to be bending in the wind on some Appalachian mountainside. The ceiling towered twenty feet high and dust motes like tiny planets or fields of asteroids floated through shafts of light shining through the tall windows, whole galaxies adrift above the readers bowed over their books like monks at long tables.
In the center of the room, a bank of card catalog cabinets stood like a high mesa of wood and brass in a badland desert of comfy reading chairs. The card holders and pulls on each drawer weren’t just brass but an arcane alloy made of copper from the desert southwest and zinc from Alaskan mines mixed and cast in metal loops the girth of a finger to open a drawers full of secrets written in Dewey Decimal code. The stacks occupied the left half of the room, canyon walls of fiction and fact made from paper, ink and glue. I was convinced that if all the books could whisper, a flood of sound and stories would wash us away, all the way down Market Street and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Pascagoula Public Library was demolished in 1987 and a bland new brick and glass box was erected on the site. It has fluorescent lights and Berber carpets and computers instead of card catalogs. I hate it, but I’m almost glad. Have you ever reread a book you loved as a kid only to find it wasn’t nearly so captivating the second time around? The old library is gone. I’ll never reread that particular book, so I can remember it however I like.
It seems a shame, though, that our sons will never have the same experience. We went to the library quite a lot when they were little guys for story time or to get stacks of books for us to read to them at bedtime. But by late elementary school, I had to beg, bribe or threaten them to get them to a library. They just wanted to stay home and play video games or watch Cartoon Network. And now that they’re in high school, they have laptops, Facebook, Youtube, and Netflix as well as an Xbox and the Nintendo Wii. Even the word “library” is becoming obsolete. Their schools have “media centers” where books are almost extraneous. The only reason our boys know what a card catalog is is because I bought one at an architectural salvage place and put it in the living room.
I read an article recently about the smell of old books. It detailed the aromatic chemicals given off as the organic materials they are made from – the paper, glue and ink – decay. Books die, it said, but that also means they have a life. And in the course of that lifetime, they actually absorb certain strong odors, too, from things their readers expose them to like cigarette smoke or coffee. That’s what future “media centers” will lack along with the card catalogs and world globes and the maze-like stacks. One thing will be noticeably absent – the smell of all those living-dying, well-handled books.
A small price, you might say, for our kids growing up with a whole world of information and literature at their fingertips. And it is, I agree, an amazing time to be alive and curious. Until the power goes out.
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