On September 18th, 2015 the Stewart-Lakewood Branch of the Atlanta Public Library closed its doors after 56 years of service to residents of the 30315 zip code and surrounding environs. While I was aware of its imminent demise I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia, which hit me with a level of intensity I had not anticipated. All this activated a long dormant neural pathway as I vividly relived the panic of having overdue books. My God ! What would the fines be by now ? I’d rather displease my parents than one of those eternally aging, yet never dying, librarians who, in their off hours, inhabited the nightmares of Roger Waters. Strange thoughts given that the last time I stepped foot inside the building was around 1987. I’m astonished at how fast one can regress, mentally speaking, from middle age to adolescence within milliseconds. This overdue-book neurotic flashback aside there are few places in your life that offer a respite from whatever it is that, well, causes you to seek out “respites” in the first place. And while I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to many global destinations it is the Stewart Lakewood Library Branch (and memories thereof) that has always provided a reliable “go to” psychic oasis for me in times of distress. Back in the day it was a great place to experience what the enlightenment gurus of today might call “The Now” or “The Moment”. I didn’t get hung up on what hadn’t been done or what needed to be done which, paradoxically, made it possible for me to get many things done seemingly without much effort. Before we leave this section, (and before I start trying to convince you that I’m the new Tony Robbins), it is important to know that the Stewart Lakewood Branch closed as the brand new Metropolitan Branch opened up the street near the intersection of Dill and Metropolitan Pkwy. So it’s not as if they left the area high and dry although I think maybe they should have first checked in with me before doing any of this.
My first memories of the Stewart Lakewood Branch start in the mid-late 60s when we would take short walking trips from Perkerson Elementary located right across the street. It’s not as if the Perkerson Library was deficient or lacked interesting books. Just that the teachers thought it a good idea for students to become facile with the operational dynamics of a real functioning library since that was where serious scholarship and research would be accomplished. I was a very quick study with the Dewey Decimal system and could zoom through a card catalogue faster than anyone I knew (including my academic arch nemesis Doreen). Mrs. Hemphill, the Perkerson Librarian, showed me the protocol for inspecting books: when removing a book for browsing also pull out the one next to it about an inch so you will know where to replace the first book should you not find it helpful. This simple knowledge impressed one of the craggy librarians over at the SL Branch. Perhaps thinking that I might have the stuff to be a librarian she gave me a tour of the sacred “behind the counter” area where I suspected they maintained Stasi-like dossiers on all those with overdue books and even people who simply looked like they would not return books on time. I was greatly relieved to find no evidence of such files though I did most of my reading at the library so I didn’t worry so much. I did notice 1) the overpowering smell of stale cigarette smoke and 2) that they maintained a list of physical descriptions matching people suspected of unsavory behavior. I never had any problems at the Library even as the rest of Stewart Avenue declined. However one of my classmates told me that when walking she was occasionally followed by a creepy guy (and not always the same one). So she started getting rides to and from the Library which was quite inconvenient since she lived at most 1,000 feet away from the building. As for the smell of cigarettes ? Well back then people liked to smoke in public and smoke breaks at work were very common. It was no worse than say the Teacher’s Lounge at Perkerson which at times contained what resembled a rolling bank of fog. When someone entered or exited smoke would billow out into the hallway forming cumulus like structures.
As you entered the Library they had a rack of paperbacks which was always my first stop. I would stand there reading through stuff like “The Exorcist” (it was way too scary to attempt a full read) or “Chariots of the Gods” which flipped me out with its theories of prehistoric alien visitations and discussions of extra-terrestrial landing strips such as the Nazca Lines in Peru. I even took a crack at The Autobiography of Christine Jorgenson (“The first person to go abroad and come back a broad”) until it disappeared permanently from the rack. I was told that people frequently stole the paperbacks which was quite easy as inventory control systems then weren’t very sophisticated. I also liked sports biographies such as Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay” which I found to be very inspirational even though I had no interest in becoming a football player. And Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” destroyed my illusions that baseball was a pure sport. In reality I preferred the opposite side of the library because it got more sunlight courtesy of a dark candy green, plate glass window. When it rained the drops would hit the glass with a pleasant sound resulting in a hypnotic effect and I would drift off to sleep. The reading area was spacious and the chairs were large and comfortable. When my friends came along we could setup comfortably in this area as long as we didn’t make noise. We had all perfected the “library whisper” so rarely did we get any grief. I found it incredibly odd that the while the Librarians wouldn’t let me check out a book rated for adults such as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or “The French Connection” (also a famous movie at the time) they had no objections whatsoever if I read the same book while on the premises.
I was able to rapidly read books which I believe was the result of training with a Tachistoscope – a device that was en vogue in late 60s-early 70s education in general and at Perkerson Elementary in particular. It projected a page of text onto a screen and, starting at the top, a light would overlay a series of words on a sentence moving from left to right with the number of words being adjustable by the user. The rate at which the light moved was also adjustable and with practice the reader could “take in” more and more words per sentence and even multiple sentences at a time thus increasing reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. They would test you after a reading session to insure that you were actually “getting” the material. As for me I can say that this system worked extraordinarily well and to this day I can rapidly zoom through an abstract, email, or article sometimes having to pretend to read it slowly just to convince someone else that I actually did read it. I don’t think that this technique has much to do with intelligence – it was just a matter of practice as far as I was concerned. Anyone around at the time will also be familiar with the then heavily promoted Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course that I assume relied upon similar principles though I don’t know if a projector system was involved. Advertisements for Ms. Wood’s reading system were infamously parodied on Cheech and Chong’s 1973 Los Cochinos hit comedy record.
The Branch also had interesting artistic demonstrations, poetry readings, and plays that provided much needed distraction for antsy school children especially in the brutal heat of Summer (Perkerson not then being air conditioned). It was around 1969-70 that we went to see an exhibition put on by a troupe of dedicated puppeteers led by a super serious beret wearing guy named Bernard who clearly did not dig having to do this gig. His assistant was a pretty woman who selected myself and two other guys to help move in their gear and set things up. The rest of the troupe hung back and shared a smoke in the parking lot. It was cool unpacking the various puppets and implements of the show and very fascinating to get an idea about what went on behind the scenes. Bernard watched from a distance and snorted in disapproval when someone set down a road case a little too hard for his taste. I thought he was actually going to cry – but the Assistant ran over and consoled him in warm velvety tones. I realized he might not be happy with how his career was going. From an early age I had been exposed to various creative types (mostly musicians) who were always lamenting about ongoing lack of recognition and having to forever play less than desirable gigs. But this was different in that most people could at least understand what a musician goes through – but a puppeteer ? That’s gonna be a very hard sell at the Family Reunion. I imagine the following taking place:
“So Bernard, will you be joining your Father’s Accounting firm soon ?” Bernard would then storm off in righteous indignation leaving his Mother to say, “He is under a lot of stress these days. His little Ventriliquist group isn’t as popular as he had hoped”. And Bernard, hearing this horribly inaccurate description of his life’s calling, would tearfully exclaim, “Dammit Mother, how many times do I have to tell you that I’m a Puppeteer NOT a ventriliquist ! You never listen to me…….”
Anyway the show came off really well but ended on a sour note when Bernard finally lost it during the Q&A session when some kid’s simple minded comment caused him to seize up in a frothy rage rendering him unwilling (or unable) to respond. The charming Assistant stepped in to smooth it all over which apparently was her primary role in the troupe – that of managing Bernard’s temper tantrums and setting right his offenses.
So where are we now ? Prior to the economic recession of the mid 2000s the Capitol View area experienced significant gentrification and Sylvan Hills was not far behind what with the proximity to the Belt Line. Nearby East Point had boomed and even Hapeville was experiencing a resurgence. I heard that the owner(s) of the “Cross Roads Shopping Center” (formerly Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center) was attempting to attract the likes of Home Depot to facilitate the anticipated flurry of repair and renovation business. This triggered some romantic notion (at least for me) that the area and the Library would return to its former days of glory when it was packed with children and teenagers though 1) it wasn’t clear that the initial wave of buyers would be bringing/starting families and 2) the whole Shopping Center would have probably been razed anyway. As developers, home flippers, squatters, and old time residents of the area pondered these possibilities the real estate bubble burst so it all became academic and since that time it’s all been in a holding pattern. I’m told that Sylvan Hills has recently been experiencing some sales activity as the Belt Line concept seems to have taken hold.
In the end I realize I probably haven’t adequately explained why I liked this Library choosing rather to relate some tales about the place. Everyone has their Zen Garden and the concept of Zen (not that I know much about it) supposedly defies explanation. It’s hard, if not impossible, to “reverse engineer” one’s serenity inducing moments and places. It just happens and you can’t force it. Sometimes it’s a key relationship or a specific positive event but in my case it was neither (that I can recall anyway). It was more of a sustained experience of learning and developing in a pressure free environment not that what was going on at home or school was bad – just that I could be myself at the Library and really get some thinking done. While I’ve been rough on the librarians in this post there were a few who were very cool and supportive once they detected that I was on the level. One guy named “Van” (last name long forgotten) used to cruise by Brothers Three to score a six pack. He was always enthusiastic about books and learning and for a librarian he was extremely outgoing and talkative. I get the sense that the others with whom he worked probably felt that he was too loud. I think my last visit was around 1987 to see if they had a certain book. Near the front there was a poster of Sting dressed like some old world scholar holding a book with the caption of “Read”. (This was from a poster series sponsored by the American Library Association) Much of the look and feel of the place was the same as it was in the 70s though equipment had been modernized (for that era) and I noticed that many of the books I had read were still there suggesting perhaps that there wasn’t much rotation going on. But the same vibe was there. Anyway I regret not making it by the Stewart Lakewood Branch before it closed so I’ll have to rely purely on memories moving forward. I have been anyway but it would have been nice to have an updated mental snapshot. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid