Photograph of check out counter of the East Branch on Jane Street of the Bridgeport Public Library ca. 1945 copyright Bridgeport Public Library Historical Collections.
Click on photo to enlarge.
Mildred Wirt Benson, the author who created “Nancy Drew,” girl sleuth, and inspired generations of teen-age girls with the heroine’s spunk, independence and resourcefulness, died recently at the age of 95. Using her pen name, Carolyn Keene, she revered herself to her young readers. Mildred’s obituary in the Connecticut Post concluded with a quote from her last column, published in The Blade , the newspaper where she still wrote a weekly column, “I consider it an honor to have been born near the turn of the 20th century, at about the time when public libraries were first coming into popular use.”
As I read Ms. Benson’s final words, I was reminded of the little branch library on Jane Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut . It was a second home to me each summer after elementary school let out. Now, for two months, I had all the time in the world to walk the twenty or so blocks from Hickory Street down East Main to turn a right corner and up the broad cement steps into my heaven. There I would enter into a contrasting coolness where the dark wood paneling and bindings of thousands of books combined to release a delicious odor. It’s still easy for me to bring up that smell from my Rolodex of memories.
Each morning I would walk those blocks to take yesterday’s books up to the huge desk where I had to tipsy-toe to place them on the high counter so the librarian could check in each one by pounding down her great, big, date stamp, with a date like July 10, 1935.
She would turn the book over, slip the manila card out of its special pocket to examine it, and then, down would come the metal stamper. This accomplished, the fun began as I would search for new volumes to check out today. Some days I would choose to read a bit of each book to confirm my decision before starting the long trek home. Sitting at one of the huge, smooth tables on a sturdy slat-backed chair, I would fondle the cover before opening to the first page to read enough to assure me I had made the right choice. The world was mine as I chose adventures like “Gulliver’s Travels;” stories about dogs such as “Terhune’s, “ Wolf;” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” by Kate Douglas Wiggin which gave me a picture of life in an earlier America along with Louisa May Alcott’s wonderful world of “Little Women.” Or I would be whisked away to exotic places as I became immersed in “The Arabian Nights.” Satisfied that I had chosen well, it was back to the counter so my new choices could be stamped officially. Then the kindly librarian would slide them across the wide desk and into my eager hands!
Walking on the hot sidewalk with my treasure balanced on one arm, it wasn’t long before I would need to switch to the other because, if I waited too long, sweat would make the book covers stick to and color my skin. They didn’t have protective covers like present day libraries use, they had uniform covers of a sturdy cloth with only the colors differing. I seem to remember I might dawdle as I passed the Loft’s candy store to enjoy looking at the fancy boxes of luscious chocolates. Not far from Loft’s there was a dry goods store, (I guess dry goods indicated no food sold) and there might be flowered house dresses like my mother wore or stoves and refrigerators on display. There was a movie theater called the American where I liked to read the posters for coming attractions.
There was a Roman Catholic church, St. Charles, its architecture fascinating me, and as I got closer to home, an odd looking church with a round ball top. I knew nothing of churches without steeples in my early youth. I became familiar with every building I passed, day after day, all summer long.
After lunch, when the sun would really heat up our yard, I would settle in under the wonderful, wide branches of our huge sycamore. There, with my back braced against the smooth skin of this special tree, I would escape into my magical world of books. And the following morning, if it was a weekday and good weather, I’d be off again to my beloved branch library on Jane Street.
by Millicent Zolan
For more Bridgeport History visit the Bridgeport History Center at: http://bportlibrary.org/hc/