When I was a teenager, we spent part of one summer with my Aunt Ruth in Easton, Pennsylvania. This was exotic ground for kids from an isolated Alaskan homestead and we were enchanted by this small city’s urban pleasures. My aunt lived in a house that resembled the dollhouse of my early childhood, a big two-storey white Colonial that she had furnished with antiques. Silver salt cellars rested at each place setting in the evening but she was a jolly woman who always made us feel relaxed at her polished table.
My little brother and sister became ardent disciples of their cousin Johnny, a kindly giant who spent most of his free time in his bedroom watching television. He would send them to the corner store to buy snacks and that became another hangout for them, where they learned the joys of cold sodas and instant gratification.
I loved going for walks in the morning when the sunlight was still soft, down the hill to the city's core where a local department store had begun to feature clothes from Glamour magazine’s College Issue. It was still the era of classic clothes for coeds and I wandered through the tweed and bright wool, feeling as though I’d been transported into the pages of a magazine I used to treasure and save when it infrequently came my way in the hills of Anchor Point.
In late summer, Easton was much hotter than any of us was used to and the afternoons were long. Soon after we arrived, I discovered that a beautiful house down the street from my aunt’s was a library and mustering up my courage, I entered what to my unsophisticated eyes looked like a mansion.
The Mary Meuser Library was a carefully preserved old house filled with bookcases and for me, fresh from living ten miles from a library with meager stock, it was my idea of bliss. I’d go in the afternoon, read until supper, and often return for a couple of hours until the doors closed at eight. I’d sit near the fireplace feeling as though I were the daughter of English aristocracy and read greedily, making up for years of lost time.
I read constantly in Alaska but the pickings were slim. Often I’d reread the few books I owned because I’d run out of new words to gobble, or picked up selections on my weekly trip to the library on horseback because they were new books that I’d never touched before. Selection had never been a keynote of my reading until I entered the doors of Mary Meuser’s house.
It became the touchstone for what a library meant to me: books upon books in lovely, welcoming, and intimate surroundings, a private club that anybody could join. It took me fifty years to find it again, in Bangkok, in a library that, like the Meuser, had been a woman’s home. The Neilsen-Hayes Library was a small white house set in the middle of a large garden. Many of its bookshelves had glass doors and shutters of dark polished wood over the windows served as a shield from the sharp Thai sunlight.
It was a sanctuary from the barely controlled chaos that lay just outside its gates, with tranquility and elegance that soothed me every time I went there. A long gallery that was separate from the library offered art and food, and chairs and small tables were sprinkled nearby in the garden. In a country that prided itself on never being colonized, this place provided a touch of colonial charm of the best kind—the sharing of English words in a spot that anybody could enter to be bathed in quiet and surrounded by books.
When I returned to Seattle after my years in Thailand, one of the first things I did was get a library card. Although I used it often, the soul of the city’s libraries had changed. They were media centers, social service centers, and day shelters for people who had no other place to go. They were no longer refuges from the noise and exigencies of daily living. A visit to a Seattle library was a lot like a journey on a city bus, with encounters and adventures that were constant reminders of lives that were uncomfortable, of sidewalks that held tents, of illness that was not being cared for. I began to buy my books from used bookstores, often online, and hated myself for doing that.
Last year word began to spread of a private library with a yearly subscription fee, a place where readers could come and sit and work and read and borrow books. My egalitarian back went up immediately. Why not work on making public libraries more tranquil, I sputtered to anybody who would listen. Why revert to the club-like atmosphere of the Gilded Age, where aging, affluent Seattleites could retreat from the social realities that surrounded them? I felt this way right up until the minute that I was welcomed through the doors of Folio Atheneum.
As the founder gave me a tour of the bookshelves, I saw books I’d loved, books I had long wanted to read, books I’d never heard of. He assured me that this wasn’t an elitist institution, that anyone could come to sit in the comfortable leather armchairs, play chess with the set that was waiting on a table, read the books on the shelves. However the subscription fee allowed readers to take the books home with them.
When I paid for my membership, the ladies behind the counter were warm and conversational. When I began to browse the shelves, the silence was both welcome and welcoming.
And suddenly I was fifteen again, within the walls of the Mary Meuser library, in a place where the printed word was paramount and books were treated with the reverence they deserve. Without formality, the rooms still held grace and civility, qualities that are as essential a need for all of us as are books.
I know a girl who is just entering her teens, a hungry reader. She’s not quite ready for the books at Folio, but as soon as she is, I plan to take her there and buy her a membership. I know this place will feed her as completely as the Meuser library did me, and the Neilsen-Hayes library, and the small library in Anchor Point with its scanty number of books, because like those other places, Folio holds the best kind of nourishment that can be found. I know. I’m there every week, soaking up its sustenance and feeling profoundly grateful.