The Vine Street Library
We used to walk to the Vine Street Library every week during the long summers of my childhood, growing up in Southern California, in the San Gabriel Valley. My sister JT and I made the journey early in the week, because reading was a huge part of our lives and the library was closed on weekends. I don’t know how many books JT could cart home, but for me it was always the maximum of eight. I knew I wouldn’t read them all, but that wasn’t because I couldn’t, only because I figured out of eight, I could find six that would be palatable.
There was no one to drive us to the library. There were still four younger kids than JT, so Mama was not able to help us out. First of all, we had to be old enough to be able to walk by ourselves, without one of the big boys, so that would probably have been about third grade or so, maybe eight or nine years old. Secondly, walking to the Vine Street Library was no cakewalk.
Though there were only two turns long the way, there were at least six intersections to navigate, and the whole trip was probably at least two miles. It took us between forty-five minutes and an hour each way, depending on how much time we spent looking for empty soda pop bottles.
Empty soda or beer bottles were veritable gold mines of financial revenue, so we used to search along the route to the library so that we could redeem them. The nice thing was that you could search the same patch of ivy a hundred times, and still hit pay-dirt because it was too easy to miss them one time and hit the next. Of course, we never could figure out why people would dump perfectly good redeemable bottles.
Other ventures aside, the weekly trip to the library was essential to our summer success. Though our own library shelves at home were stuffed with The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, the Bronte Sisters, Mark Twain and a huge selection of the classics, I was always after mysteries and historical fiction.
My three favorite books growing up were The Swiss Family Robinson(Johann Wyss), Little Men (Louisa May Alcott) and Hans Brinker (Mary Mapes Dodge), and I read them over and over. Another was Beau Geste, a 1924 P.C. Wren novel about the French Foreign Legion. This book contained all of the elements that made it perfect for a small boy, including the fact that I only obtained it from Mama, after whining that there “was nothing to read,” a lament that she always tried to treat seriously, as she conducted the ongoing debate in her head of whether or not I was old enough to read this piece of literature or that.
She hit serious pay dirt with Beau Geste, after a not-so-sterling effort with Gergiana of the Rainbow. You can’t win them all, but I’ll give her credit for trying. I guess it’s easy to say that times were different back then, because they were. Just the absence of electronic gadgetry made our world ten times more elementary. I thought of reading back then the way I think of baseball on the radio today: free entertainment.
It didn’t cost us a dime to go to the library, because it was unthinkable that we would be late in returning our books. After all, we had two full weeks to read them, and only needed one. Mama relied on the library, because it was customary in the summer that she would lock the screen door after lunch, with us on the outside. That way she could lie down for a nap to try and keep one step ahead of us as the dinner hour approached. It did not bode well for Mama, if she got out of step, because there were too many of us and Papa did not get home until quarter to four. “Either go in and read your library book, or grab a potato peeler,” she’d say. It worked every time and still would today.
It seems inconceivable to me that we, as a culture, could possibly jeopardize the future of such a civilized and gentle past time. We need libraries desperately, if not for the sake of the adults, then for the sake of the kids.