At the dry cleaner’s a couple of Saturdays ago, the customer in front of me was having a bad day. The store had misplaced a couple of her dresses, and the air conditioning at her house had gone out on one of the hottest days of the year. There was little chance of a quick fix, and a long, blazing afternoon stretched ahead.
“I’ve been sitting in my car with the AC running,” she confessed, “just to stay cool.”
I was headed out of town, and under any circumstance, the distressed stranger would have found it odd if I had invited her to my place.
“If I were you,” I told her, “I’d spend the afternoon at the library.” I’d just come from the one in our neighborhood, which was, as it is every summer, perfectly chilled. The school year had started, and the throngs of children who show up every season for summer reading programs had subsided.
Even so, the parking lot was full, a miracle so routine I often overlook it. Just think of it. In a nation where the decline of reading is routinely lamented, and in a state plagued by chronic illiteracy, it’s possible — even likely — to drive by a public library and discover that business is bustling.
Another encouraging sign: Some of the most enthusiastic patrons seem to be the youngest ones. At the circulation desk where I’d gone to return a borrowed novel, a preschooler was leaving with his mother. His arms were full of books, which he was hugging like a litter of puppies.
“I guess I could read this afternoon,” my fellow customer at the dry cleaner’s told me. “Picking up a book is something I’ve been meaning to do.”
“One of the nice things about the library,” I said, “is that you don’t even have to read while you’re there if you don’t want to. The one down the street has soft, comfortable chairs near a window with a nice view. You can bring your laptop — or do nothing at all if you want.”
Maybe I’d quickly suggested the library as a cooling station because that’s how I came to know my first library as a boy.
In the steamy summers of childhood, my hometown’s library loomed as the coldest place around. I didn’t go there initially to read — only to escape the anguish of August. But as novelist and educator Bel Kaufman once noted, quoting a former student, in a library, “it’s hard to avoid reading.” Which is how, in fleeing the heat, I grew my affection for books.
“For many,” Kaufman pointed out, “the public library is the only quiet place in an unquiet world.”
I don’t know if the heat-stressed lady I met took my advice and went to the library. But on a day when her world was tied in knots, she could have done a lot worse.