Our town’s consolidated public library was a cinder block building with a low, squat brow. The building itself did not occupy any prominence among the strip-mall suburban sprawl. Instead of standing grandly in the middle of the old town square, it was hidden at the back of a crumbling parking lot near the abandoned ice-skating rink. Inside, it had the feel of a grocery chain store: long aisles of metal shelves under bright fluorescent lights, cheap linoleum tile floors. I half expected price checks to be announced over the intercom system instead of the five-minute closing warnings. All the furnishings appeared to be second-hand — as did the tired looking librarians who worked the check-out counter, stamping the due date and shuffling worn manila library cards in and out of their pockets. It had none of the grace and beauty of other libraries I would come to know and love later in life.
And yet, as a child, this was my happy place, my refuge from the mixed-up world outside: the Mid Continent Public Library. I even loved the name of it – I mean, it was really gutsy to suggest that we were in the middle of the continent and not just the butt hole of America. The library met all of my other criteria for childhood happiness too: it had a clean bathroom, air conditioning, a tornado shelter and thousands of books. It was quiet and free and I could walk there. Plus, I could stay there for hours and no one would bother me. Of course, the books themselves allowed me to dream all day and forget about my actual surroundings —- so that when I did emerge from that building, it was as if I had truly journeyed to the middle of the continent and back again.