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Well-Versed in the Pleasures of a Neighborhood Library


We're getting a new library in Venice.

For me, this is not just news. It's huge news because the new library--which opens Saturday--is a mere block away from my house.

This means I can wander down, day or night, and re-enter the tranquil world of my childhood when the Queensborough Public Library, my home away from home, was a short walk away too.

Even 8-year-olds need a little serenity sometimes.

I grew up in a family where reading was the preferred leisure activity. My parents urged us to read in that same persuasive way that West Point urges its cadets to be disciplined. (Although we owned a television set, watching it was usually reserved for Sunday nights and "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.")

With TV all but verboten, after school and on Saturday mornings I would hole up in the public library on Broadway and Steinway Street in Queens.

I'd aim straight upstairs to the second floor, where the children's section was located, in search of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

"The Long Winter" was my favorite. I must have read that book a trillion and a half times, shivering each time Pa braved the snow for his family.

My father never had to shoot wild bears attacking my sister and me. My mother didn't have to slaughter a cow or harvest barley to make a soothing pot of hot beef barley soup for a cold winter's day. She simply had to don boots, wool coat and hat, and walk over to Grand Union.

Still, I imagined that the Williams family was the Ingalls family, battling the elements of the harsh North Woods--in New York City.

The public library was magical.

My second favorite book was another one by Wilder, "Little House on the Prairie." (I intentionally avoided watching the TV show with the same name, fearing that I would somehow lose the memories of those afternoons at the library.)

After a few hours of reading, I would check out the books, lugging home a pile of Laura Ingalls Wilder in my book bag.

But there was something about reading at the library.

It was a comfortable and familiar place. You knew the names of the librarians--always Miss or Mrs. Something or Other. This was before Ms. and never was the librarian a Mr.

It was a simpler time. Library cards were made of paper and the librarian typed in your name on a beat-up Royal or Underwood. I remember my surprise the day I visited the library and an electric typewriter sat humming in place of the manual. We had gone modern.

I also remember the glee that came when my library card, torn and battered after much use, needed to be replaced well before the renewal date.

I started to fall out of love with public libraries in high school. By college and graduate school we were barely speaking. Public libraries had become places I went to only when the one reference book I desperately needed for a class had already been liberated from the university library.

What once had been a pleasure had become a chore. Libraries had come to symbolize book reports, term papers, a thesis that still has not been completed.

Once I was freed from grad school, my library-going dropped to just above zero. Over the ensuing years, I would visit libraries only during those rushed days before April 15 in search of tax forms.

I had moved on, away from Queens, away from a public library being just steps away. Something was lost in driving to a library. You either walked or you didn't go at all.

Still, I loved to read so I became a denizen of places where books were sold. Chain bookstores, used bookstores, rare bookstores, garage sales. I'd catch the occasional flight to Berkeley just to trawl that city's wondrous bookstores. I'd even raid my mother's stash.

But all that is about to change.

As soon as the hoopla dies down, I'm going to do a ceremonial walk over to the spanking new Venice-Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch with its 10,500 square feet, 40,000 books, automated catalogue system and computers for Net surfing--and I'm going to get a library card.

Over the past couple of years I've watched in awe as that median at Venice Boulevard and Venice Way has been transformed into the architectural beauty of Ernest P. Howard & Associates of Los Angeles.

"The library is going to be a wonderful addition to Venice," says Bob Reagan, public information director for the Los Angeles Public Library. "It's the kind of place that people can be proud of."

In a few months, Venice Beach will take on its winter pall. The busloads of tourists will drop to a handful, the sand will no longer have that just stampeded look, the boardwalk will be just about empty.

As for me, I plan to find a table tucked away in the corner of the children's section of the Venice library and settle down for "The Long Winter."

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