- Christine Cash Gilroy is a retired book publisher and English teacher.
These days, librarians are the guys with it whose purpose is to encourage literacy and celebrate history. When I was growing up, however, our town librarian in Fairfield guarded the two floors of the town library like the Celtic warrior Boudica defending her towers.
Our 1909 library was a gift from Andrew Carnegie, the legendary industrialist who gave money to towns across the country to build their libraries. Most cities agreed to build the library in Carnegie’s preferred Beaux Arts style, which blends Renaissance architecture with the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Think of the ancient Greek acropolis of Athens, with its symmetrical stone buildings, pediments, pillars, friezes with bas-relief statuary, red-tiled roofs, cornices, corner chains, dentils. Then add a bit of Renaissance flavor with curves, graceful stairways, delicate ironwork.
“Boudica” ran the library from a raised dais on the ground floor, an autocrat raised above us two more steps so I couldn’t see the top of the cash register to move my library card to his bony hands.
Sitting straight as a stick in her wooden slatted library chair, she was slim and fit. She wore lace-collared blouses with a fluffy jabot tied at the neck. Her updo was lacquered on her head, her hair pinned curls cemented in place with a year of hairspray. Not a single gray hair was out of place.
His voice could curdle the milk. Every time my grade school friends and I entered the grand atrium, its shrill litany of warnings echoed off the marble panels and humiliated us. We had to wash our hands before handling his precious books, we couldn’t speak more than a whisper, and we had to walk slowly and refrain from lugging our bags of books as we climbed the marble staircase leading to the children’s section on the second floor. We weren’t even allowed to think of browsing the books in the adult section downstairs.
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His gold tooth fascinated us. We didn’t know of any adults who had a gold tooth. We tried to check it out as she talked to us or pretended to smile at adults who entered her domain. Having just studied the human body in fifth grade science, we knew that shimmering gold wrapped around his front incisor and extended to the gumline. We loved inventing patterns for our “pirate” tooth. Maybe she had fallen on roller skates in a little cable-knit skirt. Maybe she was beaten when she was at bat. Maybe his brother gave him a knuckle sandwich. Whatever the reason, that gold tooth gave him a slender countenance that countered his primitive demeanor.
The day has come when I’ve read all the children’s books on the second floor, including every breathtaking adventure of Enid Blyton, the mysterious Nancy Drew series and even the Hardy Boys, and Sue Barton’s challenges as as a student nurse. I had read all the Arthurian tales, as well as “Black Beauty” and other horse books. I learned epic lessons from Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s “Fables”. I cried over heartbreaking stories like “Old Yeller,” and was appalled over “Lives of the Saints” because most of them were martyrs who were tortured to death. I read after bedtime at night, my flashlight illuminating my book under the covers, as my mind was carried away by the adventures of heroes and princesses and brave boys and girls solving problems with their quick wits and their resilient courage.
I was desperate to explore the tantalizing titles downstairs, but how could I get past our gold-toothed librarian on her library throne?
I decided that I would be brave like the girls in the stories, so I stifled my worry and approached His Highness. I asked her permission to scour the piles downstairs to find something new to read, then braced myself for the consequences. Her face wrinkled as if she had just entered the doggie doo-doo. She sniffled loudly.
“And what makes you think you should be allowed to browse books in the adult section?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and staring at me through the bottom of her bifocals, her eyes like lasers fixing me in place.
“I read everything in the children’s section,” I replied in a shaky voice. “I also want to read everything in the piles downstairs, and I like to read, and I stay up at night reading, and…and…my mom knows you and she said you helped me when she I also wanted things to read, I stuttered. I held my breath.
A distant gaze softened Boudica’s features as she stared at me. She thought about me for a long time. Then she got up from her chair and ordered, “Come over here.
She walked to the shelves along the atrium. “You can select books from here, here and here,” she announced imperiously, “but you can’t browse any other section.”
I was in heaven. I picked out several titles and took them to the checkout where Boudica was sorting through cards and sticking due date sheets on the inside pages.
She stamped my books and pushed them towards me.
“Thank you very much,” I began, not knowing what else to say.
Her gold tooth sparkled as she smiled back at me and shifted in her seat so her eyes met mine.
“I like to read too,” was her soft reply, and somehow she looked younger and prettier.
However, I never found the courage to ask her how she got her gold tooth.
Christine Cash Gilroy is a retired book publisher and English teacher. Andrew Carnegie donated money for the library in Fairfield, Iowa, the first library outside its home territory in the Pittsburgh area, and for other public libraries in Iowa.