I was fortunate enough to be in walking distance to one of the most beautiful Public Libraries in the country: the Jefferson Market Public Library. This beautiful piece of architecture is located at 425 Avenue of the Americas in Greenwich village. When I was a kid and frequenting this library, the Avenue of the Americas was still known as 6th Avenue. (it still is in my mind anyway).
This building is probably not like any other Library structure you have seen; beautiful cut stone faces, stained glass windows and spiral staircases give it the feeling of being from another time.
It was originally a courthouse and stood adjacent to a prison, which were both erected between 1875 and 1877. The stunning brick-arched basement was once the holding area for prisoners on their way to jail or trial. It is now a very imposing and beautiful reference room.
Standing high above the main structure was the firewatchers tower. This tower is still intact today and gives one an amazing view of all of Greenwich village.
In 1929 the prison was torn down and replaced by a Women house of Detention, probably the only Art Deco prison in the world. Mae west was actually tried there on charges of obscenity over her leading role in the Broadway Play “Sex”.
In 1973 the house of detention was torn down and replaced with a beautiful community garden. I remember the House of Detention well as I walked to the library; one could hear the women that were confined there shouting out curses and other “fun” things to passersby.
But, enough of the history lesson. I simply loved the library and especially the Jefferson Market Library. As I mentioned, when I entered its beautiful doors, I felt as though I was in another world…and then the books took me there. To whatever world I wanted to be in; to any point in history I chose to be part of; into any mystery I desired to solve.
Just that distinct smell of thousands of books enchanted me. I still love that smell, but sadly, with modern technology I have gotten away from frequenting libraries. But, as a kid… it was my fantasy word, an escape and an adventure. It was one of the few places mom allowed me to go alone and I would spend hours there. Of course, at any time I could simply check out any book I wanted with my trusty Library card, but being there, in that atmosphere, that’s what it was all about for me.
I was blessed to learn to love reading as a young child and I have much of that to thank my Aunt Ruth for. She got my Cousin Chris and I hooked on Hardy Boy adventure stories at a young age and they captured my imagination. Frank and Joe Hardy were two teenagers who found themselves involved in solving various baffling mysteries. Their adventures have now been translated into 25 languages. I couldn’t wait to turn the page and find out what situation they found themselves in next and how they would escape certain doom over and over again. The Hardy Boys were the books that got me first interested into the classic Mystery story.
Ah, but it wasn’t just the mystery’s I loved. Every section of the Library brought me to a new place. I could easily spend a Saturday afternoon in the History section. Reliving and being part of famous battles; Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, Trenton…. they all came to live for me through books.
I rode with the 7th Calvary as they advanced on the Little Big Horn, I stood by Joshua Chamberlain as he prepared his valiant defense of the Little Round Top, I manned the walls of the Alamo with Davey Crockett as Santa Anna’s superior forces surrounded the Mission. I waded ashore with the Marines as they hit Iwo……. I was with the heroes who faced almost certain death on Omaha Beach. Books took me there. I felt the atmosphere, heard the shells exploding and saw as my comrades fell. It was books that brought me there.
Then, of course the Mysteries I previously spoke of. My first love (after the Hardy Boys, of course) was the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, again courtesy of Aunt Ruth. I was in that famous flat on 221 B Baker Street with Dr. Watson and the amazing Detective. I listened in awe as his incredible deductive reasoning solved case after case. The Adventure of the Speckled Band was my favorite of all his cases, With the Hound of the Baskervilles being a very close second, but every one of the 56 cases took me in and made me part of the intrigue. Ah, the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle; magical.
My taste for the Classic Mystery took me to many other places: Agatha Christi took me aboard the Orient Express with the strange, yet fascinating Hercule Poirot. “Then There Were None” brought me to that house on the Island as every one of the guests with me was strangely killed. And, what about Rex Stout who introduced me to his characters Nero Wolfe and his confidential assistant Archie Goodwin. Wolfes fictional residence was west 35th street in Manhattan, so I had a special affinity for he and Archie. I believe I read all 33 of the Nero Wolfe novels.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to bore you. Suffice it to say that beyond the History books and the Mysteries there were the Adventure Books, The Science Fiction books, the Horror books…. I loved them all and being in the Jefferson Market Library to find them was a special time for me.
Perhaps it was that imagination I told you about in another piece, but books were not just entertainment for me, they were places of refuge, places where I found courage and intelligence and acceptance. I became one with my favorite hero on the particular book I was reading. I even tried to live out that fictional life in real life (more about that another time).
Books took me to places I had never been or would most likely never go. They took me to events that I wish I could have been part of, and events I was glad I was spared. But, I was always an eyewitness to the events written about as they unfolded before my mind’s eye.
I hope we never get so technology savvy that we get away from reading real books; the ones with paper and print. The ones we can fold and “dog ear pages”, the ones we can put on a book shelf. But even if the electronic book is the way we go, it is still a book. We stop reading them at our own peril.
I love books, and the Jefferson Market Library gave me access to thousands.
I’ll never forget that.