Having decided to go for an agent first…. Wait, are you guys all reminiscing about bookstores? And libraries?

Ok, forget agents for a bit.

Seward Elementary had the first library that I remember. It was half-hidden between the cafeteria and the gym, its doors tucked into little alcoves . Open them up, and there was this high-ceilinged room crammed with books. That set a precedent for me- books are only properly stored when they are densely packed into old, almost secret rooms.

The public library in near by Winnebago used to be in the Town Hall. An old building that squatted on the half-deserted main street of my little mid-western town. I would walk past bricked over windows and through an unmarked door into a dim, open space. Straight ahead of me, on the old stage, was the library. Shelves and shelves of books, like frozen actors waiting for me to read their lines.

My bookstores and libraries got boring as I got older. Not that I didn’t love hitting the Waldenbooks in the mall, birthday money tight in hand, or wandering through the nicely lit stacks of the new Winnebago Public library that finally got built. But they just didn’t fit my dreams of a proper book labyrinth.

Then I went off to college.

In campus town there used to be a place called Acres of Books. That name promises so much, doesn’t it? The street level shop was a little thing, crammed full of new books and novelties. And stairs. Stairs that led up to the old apartments over the store, bedrooms and living rooms and kitchens that had been transformed into a warren of rooms lined with book shelves. The SF and fantasy section had been an old den once, with a fireplace and wood paneling. It looked like something out of Scooby-Doo, and it was great.

Great, but not perfect. No, the gold-standard of book castles was just a few blocks away.

The stacks.

The University of Illinois has libraries scattered around the campus- the little paper-backed stuffed rooms hidden beneath the dorms (guess where I worked as an undergrad),  the underground undergrad (long story), and on and on. The big one, though, is the graduate library, a brick monster that sits in the middle of the campus. Its public spaces are big rooms with painted murals and high ceilings, and huge halls that lead to all the department libraries with their separate collections. In its center though, hidden behind the bulwark of the main desk, is the stacks.

Oh the stacks- dimly lit, narrow corridors that thread through millions of books. Tight, winding stairs. Cages that line the sides, occasionally containing a professor or a forgotten grad student. Dusty windows that look out onto mysterious, inaccessible courtyards.  Frosted glass floors, lights glowing softly beneath. The ancient pneumatic tubes. Q-bound books big enough to kill you if they slipped from their shelves as you wandered by.

That, my friends, is how it’s done.

When I moved back to Urbana-Champaign, the stacks were one of the first places I went, just to pay my respects. That building, that giant, dusty catacomb of books, is the hidden heart of this community.

Which means it is a proper library.





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3 responses to “Bookending

  1. Someday I should visit the UI libraries…

    The stacks at the Cambridge Public Library had metal grid floors. It really added a lot to the creepy atmosphere: dim lighting, narrow aisles, and floors that you expected to fall through at every step.

  2. Kelly Swails

    Yeah, I’ve never been to the UI libraries, either. I don’t need to turn in my author card, do I? Or is it more like a merit badge rather than a requirement?

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