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EX LIBRIS | SO SoCal

Los Angeles, Bound

September 15, 1996|Mary McNamara

In the town where I grew up, the construction of a new public library was for many years held hostage by zoning and funding controversies. And so the library of my childhood was housed on Main Street in an old church. The hush of dark wood, the bitter smell of old wax and the scattered jeweled light, carved into wedges and circles by stained-glass saints, created an appropriate sense of sanctuary. It reminded me of my own church, but in truth, I considered the library a much more likely dwelling place for God.

Since then, I have put away many childish things, but I still believe in libraries. There are more than 100 in the Los Angeles area and I cannot pretend to have seen them all. Yet. Meanwhile, an abbreviated tour:

*

Beverly Hills Public Library, 444 N. Rexford Dr. After clicking across multicolored tiles and passing through the swooping white arch of the entrance, you must fight the overpowering urge to beckon the head bellman. Rebuilt four years ago, this is a wedding cake of a library, multitiered and fancy schmancy, with blue-screened computer terminals quivering at attention and cathedral windows illumining long, high walls and long, high shelves and long, low tables upon which very beautiful young people drape their upper limbs and glowing hair in Fragonardesque poses. Occasionally a book is involved. The gray carpet still smells new and there is a most lovely quiet that travels with you long after you have left.

*

Fairfax Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, 161 S. Gardner St. Its exterior garlanded by graffiti, this branch is small, square and beige, like the library of a rural elementary school somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line. Except it's full of adults. It's a loud library on a Saturday afternoon; more than a few elderly women move with grace, if not speed, across the tiled floor and talk in wide, disinterested voices about their various ailments. The only whisper is the telltale crepey rustle of grocery bags, the tinker's pack of the homeless, who sit in straight-backed isolation at this table and that, red-faced and blinking. Here, too, are those who have just joined us--Asian, Ethiopian, Eastern European--lips moving silently as they learn the language of the country from its newspapers.

*

Los Feliz Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, 1801 Hillhurst Ave. Visiting a library in a strip mall is like calling upon one of Jane Austen's families of impoverished gentry--everyone involved finds themselves assuring one another that it's really only temporary. Which it is, this small, plain room, with huge photos of Frank Lloyd Wright creations where windows would be. The children's section is almost as large as the adults', which gives one hope. Girls and boys, cross-legged on the floor, balance oversize books against their knees. Their forefingers trace a stop-start line beneath the words until the book is done. Then they reach for another.

*

Santa Monica Public Library, 1343 6th St. The carpet is blue, like ocean water, but it's a cold blue, a November Cape Cod blue that seems jarring beneath the tan young women in their short flowered frocks, bare-legged in their Adidas and Nikes. The reading room is a scene of picture-perfect multiculturalism; the magnetic pull of the combined facial metal could conceivably alter the earth's orbit. A young man with sparkly green hair inquires after the Victorian poets while two girls begrudgingly unfasten their Rollerblades. And then there are the old men, God bless them, in mesh hats logo-free, in plaid summer shirts and gray slacks, in shorts with black socks, God bless them again, I say, with their rectangular reading specs and their sensible round wristwatches and their sweet smell of cigars, the old men, keeping any place, even Santa Monica, knee deep and unapologetically in reality.

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