“When you are a small-town librarian, you say ‘yes’ to everything.”
Librarian of Weare, New Hampshire, population 8,915, quoted in The Atlantic
It’s a quiet life, being a librarian in a small town in New Hampshire. I think that’s because there are so few people around, but it could also be because of the many “Quiet, please!” signs we sprinkle so liberally around the reading room here at the Grovers Corner Free Public Library.
People ask me–“Why does it say ‘Free’ library if you’re going to charge me a two cents a day fine for a late return?” I have to chuckle at the folk wisdom packed so densely into that plain-as-mud, gosh, aw-shucks type of thinking, but I explain it to ’em as well–I’m here to educate! “Well,” I say, propping my elbow on the dang-fangled computer checkout scanner that never works, “back in the day, you had what were called ‘lending’ libraries. You could go in there and pick up the latest bodice-ripper by a lady novelist, but you could also get loans. Good old-fashioned loans, not your fancy-pants multi-tranche, multi-currency revolving credit with a sublimit for letters of credit like they have nowadays.”
Then came the “circulating” libraries. Lots of people liked them, said it was like being in a revolving restaurant on top of that big hotel they got down there in Boston. Other people, well, they’d get dizzy and throw up, which made for a mess, let me tell you. Otto the custodian would come up from the basement with his mop bucket and a box of that nauseating red sawdust they put on vomit in the David Hackett Souter Elementary School. Lots of people said he occupied the “Keebler Elf Seat” on the Supreme Court, but we’re proud of him just the same.
Eventually, they shut down the circulating libraries–too much of a health risk. That’s where we come in, the free public libraries, making knowledge and information and books and CDs by Fifty Cent and soft-porn movies available to the masses–for free! Of course, as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody’s got to pay to keep the lights on–cain’t read in the dark–and the snow shoveled off the front steps, and to buy the new copies of the books you folks never return. And that’s where town meeting comes in.
New England town meeting is the purest form of democracy in America–one crank, one vote. Everybody’s entitled to speak their mind. It’s a little like that story, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Majority rules, and if you don’t like it, well, fresh, native New England rocks are our biggest cash crop up here.
So you’ll understand why, when taxpayers come into the library, you do anything they say. You say ‘yes’ to everything because you don’t want people fighting your budget request when it comes up to vote. Excuse me, I have to take care of Millicent Stanhope, heiress to the Stanhope Staple Remover fortune. Good morning, Miss Stanhope!
“Good morning to you!” she says cheerfully. She comes in to use our computers because she’s convinced Bill Gates implanted lasers in her body using Windows 7. I keep telling her, that’s a feature, not a bug, but she says, better safe than sorry.
“What can I do for you today?”
“Do you have ‘Love’s Tender Dress Shields’–it’s the new romance novel by Rosamunde Binchy.”
I check the catalog on the computer. “Nope, looks like Evelyn Wallop checked it out . . . and has just renewed it on-line for another two weeks.”
“Hmph. Slow reader. I recall she still moved her lips when she was a sophomore, guess she hasn’t gotten any smarter with age. Well, put it on hold for me, would you?”
“Sure thing,” I say, as I move the cursor and click the mouse to check the box to hold the book that sits on the shelves that lives in the house that Andrew Carnegie built. “Anything else for you today?”
She pulls a slip of paper from her purse. “Do you have the Low-Cal Iams cat food in the turquoise bag?” she asks.
I’m taken aback, but not very far. We get a lot of strange requests here at the library, and we have to say “yes” to just about everything, but on this one I can’t help her.
“I’m going to have to demur,” I say, using a good, solid, old-fashioned word that’s passed out of favor.
“You don’t look very demure.”
“No–‘demur’–no ‘e’ at the end. Not ‘demure.’ Meaning I can’t help you on that one.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that?”
“We’re a library, we’ve got all these vocab words, we might as well use them. Happy to help you with those things that are within my power, though.”
“All right,” she says. “What’s your favorite animal?”
No problem there. “Penguins–I just love the little guys.”
“Why is that?”
“Cold, bumbling, serial monogamists. I identify with them.”
“Okay,” she says, then clears her throat, as if to signal that what she’s going to ask isn’t easy for her. “I want you to stand on one foot, hop up and down, and make a noise like a penguin.”
Like I say, you get a lot of cockamamie requests when you’re a small town librarian, but this one–well, I have to say it takes the cake, and not just a Little Debbie Cake, more like the wedding cake for the daughter of a small-town Chevy-GMC dealer.
“Is this . . . really important to you?” I ask, hoping she’s kidding.
While she’s thinking, Dave Francois, Town Meeting Moderator, ambles up behind her. He’s got his usual weekend supply of manly-men lit: Master and Commander novels, Jane’s Fighting Ships, How to Improve Your Miniature Golf Score.
“What’s the hold-up?” he asks in a joshing tone. Dave’s the umpire of the fiercest quarrels we have in town, and as a result has developed a personality as bland as instant mashed potatoes.
“Millicent here has asked me to hop up and down on one foot and make a noise like a penguin.”
He gives his head a shake of befuddlement, like Robert Frost’s little horse in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. He looks at her, then at me–and speaks. “Well–what are you waiting for?”