When I moved here from Berlin more than a year ago, books constituted the bulk of my possessions. The movers glumly counted 60 boxes. Now, my books line an entire wall of my condo. Nonfiction, novels, plays, poetry, catalogues, how-to manuals, cookbooks, dictionaries, style guides, comics, beloved children’s books. And my treasured Wolf Trap and Kennedy Center programs from 1972 to 1976, when my father, a German diplomat, was posted here.
It’s safe to say I have a slight obsession with printed matter. That passion took root in Washington. I won’t blame America for my habit; there was a familial predisposition. My parents, careful with money, were profligate with books. They read to us every night. My mother even promised to explain the dirty puns in Shakespeare if we would read his original versions rather than the abridged children’s versions. (We did, and she did.)
But in that first hot and dozy D.C. summer in 1972, our boxes were still swaying over the ocean on a container ship.
My brother, age 8, and I, 10, were bookless and cranky. Our parents found a house in Palisades, the western corner of the city. To our delight, we discovered a dozen boxes of National Geographic magazines, circa 1953 to 1967, in the attic. Our family devoured them, bemused and fascinated.
Then we were done — and cranky again. There was no air conditioning, and our mother began to look worried.
In those days, middle-class white families avoided the District. It took us a while to comprehend that Washington was a de facto segregated town. We did notice that white people rode in cars and only black people took the bus. All our school friends lived at least a 30-minute drive away, and my mother was deeply uninterested in spending her waking hours driving us around the suburbs. That was when she lit on our neighborhood library, a nondescript, two-story building, modest enough to be easily overlooked at first glance.
She wasn’t sure it would work. After all, we had firmly rejected the neighborhood library in Bonn, West Germany’s capital between 1949 and 1990. There, a chilly lady unlocked the door of a cellar room, releasing a distinct waft of mold. We could, she said, point to books, which she would take down for us. “No more than three.”
We set off to investigate the Palisades Library’s possibilities. “Your books,” said a lady at the ground-floor desk to us, “are upstairs.” Reluctantly, my brother and I climbed up the staircase. I’m fairly certain I didn’t know the word “epiphany,” but what awaited me felt like a life-changing revelation. The second floor of the Palisades Library became our second home.
Today, when books and other media are freely available, it is hard to understand just how thrilling it was to have an entire room with hundreds of books (and child-size furniture) to ourselves. Best of all were the kindly goddesses of the children’s floor: two black librarians in shirtdresses and cardigans, who looked up from their desks and said, “What can we do for you, dears?”
Those ladies became our guardian angels. We respected them because they were dignified and knowledgeable; we revered them because they took us seriously. They showed us their books, discussed them with us, recommended new ones and taught us how to use the card catalogue. They got the library to lift the limit on books we could take home, and they helped us research school papers. If a book wasn’t there, they sent away for it.
We spent many hours absorbed with their generous offerings. Once, we even sent a whole book box back from vacation somewhere west of the Rockies. And my mother finally got time for herself.
Only recently, living in a more integrated District, did I understand that our library was one of the rare places in the 1970s where the trajectories of white and black people intersected companionably.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working in some fabulous libraries. But none have I loved as wholeheartedly as the Palisades’ and the ladies of the second floor. I am grateful for all that they taught me and forever in their debt.
The writer is the Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.