For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

The Old Kingsbridge Branch of the New York Public Library
- Memories of the Forties

by Arlene Baum Rattien


can feel it still...the anticipation as I made my way along the cool, hushed walkway leading to the children's room of the library on Kingsbridge Avenue, adjacent to the Church of the Mediator. No modern buildings then, no computers, no fancy scanners that scanned bar-coded books. Just a small dark one-room site filled with books waiting to be devoured.

I recall searching for the Moffat books, or for the Carolyn Haywood series, eager to take them home, ready to get lost in their stories. We were only allowed to take out four books at a time in those days, so my choice was made with great care, usually paring down a taller stack to the coveted few.

Library cards in those days were date-stamped according to the number of books taken out and then stamped again when they were returned. I was always fascinated by the "stamper" that was somehow magically attached to the erasure end of a sharpened pencil. As I watched the librarian skillfully manage this tool, pressing first on the red ink pad and then transferring the date image to my card, I yearned to try it out, but, alas, never had the opportunity.

An avid reader from an early age, I returned to the library again and again. I owned very few books. My father, a product of hard economic times, did not believe in buying books. That's what libraries were for, he felt. Of course, I made up for this lack as an adult, filling my shelves with more books than I could possibly read AND regularly going to the library besides!

One of my biggest thrills as a youngster was watching my library card fill up with marks indicating the number of books I had taken out and read. How excited I got when there were no more spaces left and I was given a new blank card, allowing me to start the process all over again.

As it is today, Story Hour was a highlight of the library's activities back then. The librarian selected a book of merit and read it aloud to those children who opted to participate. To partake, a child had to register and was given a ticket which was intended, no doubt, to keep the number of attendees to a manageable level.

For reasons I cannot say, but possibly having to do with issues of time and schedules, I only went to one such session, but one whose highlights I clearly remember. Lining up along the fiction shelves, tickets in hand, we were ushered through a door into a back area that was not normally open to the public. Chairs were set up in a row along the front of the room in a flattened semi-circle. The room was dimly lit, and as we sat in muted silence the librarian lit a candle, signaling the start of story time. Which story she read, I cannot say. However, the audience sat still, taking in the words of the author, mesmerized by the librarian's voice and the flickering candlelight. The hour up, we filed out silently, thinking, no doubt, of the tale just told.

From time to time, classes from my school, P.S. 7, went on field trips, walking south along Kingsbridge Avenue to the library. On one such occasion, possibly when I was in second or third grade, the librarian introduced our class to the tale of Emil and the Detectives (in later years this tale became a movie and a classic children's read). The excerpts the librarian presented that day made me want to read this book so badly! But it was not to be, not that day at least; the book was not available for circulation. On each subsequent visit to the library, I requested that book, until the staff, either tired of hearing from me or perhaps understanding my need to read this story, held the book aside for me. It is interesting that, so many years later, I remember the incident far more clearly than I do the story.

Of all my library recollections, the most meaningful one goes back to the day I first registered. Such excitement! I must have been about five years old, just having mastered the legible writing of my name. My mother and I went to the library where I was required to print my name, first and last, in a big ledger-like tome while mom filled out forms assuming responsibility for my future library life. With straight pen in trembling hand (no ball point pens yet), I dipped the nib into the ink and ever so carefully, trying to stay on the line, I wrote my name. The uneven, wavering letters sloping slightly uphill did not deny the significance of the moment and as I took the "oath" promising to take good care of library materials, I became a loyal member of the reading community of Kingsbridge. I was so proud!

Years later, as an upper-grader, I was able to advance to the adult library located on the main level of the same building. Normally, this privilege was reserved for high school students, but with parental consent, eighth graders could use some of the adult materials. And I did! Many an evening, I gathered with my friends at an old pock-marked wooden table among the non-fiction books where we giggled the evening away, ostensibly doing research or completing homework. We were good kids and the library provided us with a place where we could "hang out" and be productive at the same time.

Images of the Kingsbridge library abound in my mind's eye along with their accompanying memories. I can see them now-the cool, shaded path leading to the door of the children's room, the cool summer breeze that flowed through the library, the dark bricks of the building's facade, the outdoor steps that connected the adult and children's sections, the wooden tables and chairs, first miniature, later adult-sized, and the hundreds of books just beckoning me to read them.

A photo of the library site as it is, decades later, confounds my recollections. No longer is the walkway dim and tree-lined; it is bleak and barren. The dark brick appears red; the doors, once brown, are painted white. Which is real? Which imagined? I prefer the images stored in my memory. I can see them still....

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