If there is a constant in life, it’s change. The things we loved as a kid are never quite the same as an adult. Many of the places that I loved have gone away. The arcades and bookstores in the malls? Gone. The theaters in Conway? One replaced and one closed. The used bookstores? Gone. There are so many places that I loved that simply aren’t there anymore.
And so it stands to reason I write this piece on the one place that has never ceased being a haven for me. Oh, It’s changed. The layout in that building is ever in flux. But the things I sought there have yet to change. The reasons for going there are in many ways the same. And the opinion I hold on it remains the same.
So why this specific library? I might as well note I use pretty much every branch at least once a year and several weekly. The main branch wasn’t even the first branch of this library system I visited. That would be the Terry branch. (See my note about weekly visits) And yes, I spent my youth in Conway, not LIttle Rock, but while yes, I have fond memories of that library, I never was satisfied with their selection. Still not. So again, why this branch.
Well, it begins with the day of my first visit. I went into Little Rock with my dad in the fall of 1997. Now in truth, I know our visit was to talk to a neurologist about a pending diagnosis to come in December that would alter me forever. I didn’t know that. After the neurologist, we went downtown to see some of the, well, not celebrations for the 40th Anniversary of Central High but the recognition. Then we visited the library.
Before I describe the new library, I should describe the old. The old version of the Little Rock Main Library was old, dusty, dank, and if you chipped at it, rather great. The selection wasn’t where it would become through myriad bond issues easily passed because of their benefits were clear but nice. It was just outdated. So, contrary to cultural stereotypes, Little Rock, Arkansas spent heavily on a 5 story, fancy new library as part of its planned River Market District which today is a thriving hub of restaurants, the arts, and clubs. Yeah, don’t try to park down there.
And this brings me to my reaction to it. The interior Is heavy on warm colors. Lots of light throughout. Golden colors, light grays were big for the interior design. The stacks of books impressed me too. Unlike the awkward prior layout, this was a massive, showcase of books. The shelves were out in the open. Fiction in one section. Nonfiction in another part of the first story. Books on tape against one wall. And then, on its own floor, children’s books and young adult books. Today, well pretty much all of that is different. Again, 17 years. But I’m also 17 years older.
I was a kid in a candy shop and at that time my dad had a card, so I checked out books and eagerly devoured. And so it was that I found a neat new place to go. For a few months, every time we ran into LR, I checked out books. And then…his card stopped working as he ceased to be a resident of Pulaski County. So in many ways, that was most likely the end of my visiting this really cool, neat place. I mean, do you visit a library in another county often?
But, well, the neurologist popped back up. I got my diagnosis. There were still a few visits to go though to tie it up. And man, those were not good times for me. I confess it. I was deeply depressed largely due to the wounds of that diagnosis. So anyway, my dad had to run me in and then had to figure out a safe place to drop me while he worked. And again, I was a young nerd. So I was no longer a shopper, but I could still sit in the library and read. And on this visit, I found my first exposure to the microfilms.
Look, Asperger Syndrome inevitably will play into this. As noted, my diagnosis brought me back here. And I really loved browsing the older newspapers. Why the hell did I start looking at them? I’ll never know. But I did. And so I would start my time traveling there, a 14 year old boy alone at the library.
Eventually the excuses to go in ceased but that wasn’t a cause to stop going. So a routine formed. Holiday breaks, I would ride in early one morning. I would be dropped off in the river market. I’d grab a cup of coffee. Then up to the library. A few hours of book browsing. Walk to grab lunch. Walk back. Microfiliming. More reading. Then dad would pick me up and we’d head to the bookstores. Do I have a favorite visit from this era? It’s hard to say. I started to try to list one then it hit me I was blending two or three visits. And maybe that’s the point. They were all like that.
Until 2001. For there was a thing that was amazing: The Gateway Card. Suddenly I was old enough to check out books in Little Rock by getting a card in Conway that could be used within the giant network of libraries. So yup, first visit of 2001, I had a card I could use. And I went insane. I got a ton of books that trip. OK, so aside from that they were still the same but the point was I could shop.
And it’s time to note the selection. Conway stuck to mostly standard material like romance novels and legal thrillers. The best sellers were there. But if you were a Star Wars fan, well maybe they’d get the new book in. Star Trek fan? They quit stocking those. Non-fiction? You on a diet or have mental health issues? I would do both but I still didn’t want to read them. By contrast, I could read anything at LR Main, it seemed. They had Batman books! They had books on the history of film! They had plays both stage and screen.
So yeah, I loved the location. Once I started to drive in solo, you can safely guess what happened. LR Main became a common spot. I also dropped by the other branches too. And then the selection got better because they added graphic novels. OK, at first they were slow but once they picked up steam, they started to grab things I was about to buy. Even going to college didn’t stop me. I went to school 75 minutes from LR and I kept my form room filled with books from the library. Look, gas was $1.75 a gallon. During my underemployment, I kept going. And then, to bring this story to a close, I got a job 5 blocks from the library. So yeah, now it’s my primary library.
So, with all that said, it’s not surprising that I have a lot of nostalgia. And yet, today when I get stressed, my first thought is to get to the library. So, why? Well, the selection that I was so in awe of as a kid? Still in awe of it. With graphic novels becoming popular, they raced to stock them. Hell, I just tried to stump it with one I knew they didn’t have. Nope, they ordered it Friday. Dvds? Whatcha want to watch?. If they don’t have it, it’s checked out. Fiction and non-fiction are great. Not perfect. Great. They even have video games!
But mere selection isn’t enough to explain why LR Main is my haven. And nostalgia isn’t either. So maybe, factoring those two in in as key players, let me introduce a third important one. It’s quiet. As I noted, I am neurologically impaired. So shut down the boise. Reduce scent aside from the happy one of ink and paper. Surround me with happy things. And then I can focus. New things I can enjoy. And a place that I love.
If you are reading this and you aren’t a library user, I urge you to be one wherever you are. If you’re a librarian, thanks. Always liked your ilk.
No matter what, as long as I am near Little Rock, I will use that library. And it will be my happy place.