When I was a kid one of the ways I ranked how good the neighborhood I lived in was by how much I liked the public library that was there. St. Louis is filled with lots and lots of old historic libraries. I started out going to Barr Branch, which is on Jefferson Street just south of downtown. It was a small library at the time and it has been updated in recent years, given a total facelift that includes an expanded children’s library and a big concrete turtle out back.
When I got a little bit older and I could take the bus by myself I went to the main library downtown. The building is huge and dates back to the turn of the century. Sometimes I was afraid that I would get lost in its cavernous stacks. It has a large classic books selection and is the home base of the St. Louis Genealogical Society. It’s the place to go if you want to research your lineage. It has also been used as a movie site a couple of times, including one called “Escape From New York.”
Then we moved even further south and I started hanging out at the Carondelet Branch. It was a large imposing federalist building with columns. There was a good selection of books but the place seemed a little bit cold spare and minimal.
The last public library in the city that I used before I moved out to the county was the Carpenter Branch up on South Grand. It was a long squat one-story building whose inside sort of reminded me of a posh men’s club with its dark woodwork and paneling. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see old men in suits hanging around smoking cigars and sipping brandy.
Now I occasionally go to the library here in my hometown, but I’m afraid my main source of reading and information comes from the local Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores. I guess there is a couple of reasons for this: their selection of new materials is much more current and extensive than that of the libraries. At the library new book releases usually take up just one rack as you first enter the building. The magazine selection is better at the bookstores. And probably most importantly, you can sit in the café and sip coffee while you read them.
And it’s a popular thing to do. Most evenings the café at the Borders near my house is packed with people stopping by after work or students doing their homework. There’s even a Barnes and Noble on the campus of Washington University. The Barnes and Noble that is nearest to my house is usually not quite as busy, but it’s a farther drive to get there so I usually go to Borders.
A new survey in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (www.stltoday.com) reveals that St. Louis is one of the top ten literate cities in the country. So I guess all the folks at the bookstores are actually doing some reading. The study says that stronger newspaper readership, more periodicals, and a good library system are some of the reasons that St. Louis ranked 6th in the top ten this year. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Denver, Seattle, and Washington outranked St. Louis overall. St. Louis ranked high in library resources, second only to Columbus, and fifth in bookstores. Though we only have one independent bookstore, Left Bank Books in the Central West End, there are a number of specialty bookstores around the city.