My Library Shame: Part 2

[Part 1 of this two-part series appeared on the LSQ blog on Monday. –Blog Ed.]

“You know it doesn’t work that way. This is a library, not a book store. If you lost it you could pay to have it replaced. But we do not sell books here.”

“Well, I want to pay for the copy of Atlas Shrugged that I took out. I know I also have late fees to pay.” I smiled at her bewildered face, thick lines of confusion crossing her brow.

“Can you wait a second?” She disappeared behind the circulation desk. As I have put a few years between myself and this encounter, I often wonder if she was thinking, “I don’t get paid enough for this shit.”

She returned a few minutes later with another woman in tow. Her name tag said she was the Head Librarian: Ms. Shelley Percey. She was sporting the same painful expression the first librarian had on her face.

“Hello, young lady, how may I help you?” This was a fair greeting since I was young enough to be her grandchild. Ms. Percy was very polite as all librarians take training to be. But the look down her nose and over the top of her glasses told me she was not in any mood for foolishness. I, of course, was just as polite back.

“I am here to pay for the copy of Atlas Shrugged I took out a couple of months ago. I want to pay for the book and any late charges I have on it, please.” I nodded as if that should clear up any problems of understanding my purpose.

“You lost the book?” She asked as if she had not already heard from Librarian #1 that I had not misplaced the property of the county.

“No, I have the book at home. I just love it so much, I want to buy it.”

“We are always glad to hear when one of our patrons enjoys our books, but these books are for everyone. What kind of library would we have if we allowed everyone who wanted to buy a book to do so?”

“Do a lot of people ask to buy the books they take out?” I was honestly confused. If this was a normal everyday thing I wasn’t sure why the Head Librarian had gotten involved.

She started to respond to me but thought better of it. Clearly, she was working something out. I held my breath.

She looked at my library card and tapped it on the countertop. One tap followed by three short taps, all the while scrutinizing me like I had not seen since my second-grade teacher who happen to be a nun. Our Ms. Percy had not gotten to the rank of Head Librarian without understanding what battles to fight and which ones to walk away from. She turned to Librarian #1.

“Take her money.” Her eyes never left my face. Then to me, she said, “The cost for replacing this book is $25.00, plus of course your late charges.” My eyes grew huge and wild.

“But it says $7.99 inside the cover,” I croaked. Silence fell between us for a very long half minute that felt like a year of my life had just been sliced off.

And then she shrugged. A shrug that clearly said, ‘I don’t get paid enough for this shit.’ She and Librarian #1 gave each other THE LOOK.

“Charge her the cover price, plus the late fees.”

With that, she turned to go back through the door behind the desk still holding onto my library card. When she realized she was still holding it, she placed it down on the counter in front of me. I reached for it but she had not let it go. Her fingers pulled the card and me closer. In a low voice she whispered to me:

“I don’t want to see you in my library again. There are lots of other branches in our system, please make someone else’s life interesting.” I nodded and the card was released to me. The transaction was completed without another word spoken. Good thing I was shaking so badly that I don’t think I could have said anything. I never did visit that branch again.

Over the many years that have spanned the time from my encounter with Ms. Percy, I have been a much better patron. I have taken many classes in a variety of libraries across several states. I have happily participated in demonstrations when I was a Master Gardener at a number of branches. I have taken hundreds of books out and promptly returned them, paying whatever nominal late fees I might have incurred. I have even talked to librarians without my palms sweating. I felt that this troubled episode in my life was well behind me.

My beloved, furball-stained copy of Atlas Shrugged is still with me. It has managed to stick around when so many other books have made their way to other hands to enjoy, or charity sales. Dagny and I have grown to be best buds, BFFs. Would she approve of my forthright way of dealing with a book I had loved? I would like to think so. The years have allowed me a softer remembering of all of this. Being older, wiser, and all that.

However, standing in the parking garage with Frederick, Maryland’s own version of The Apple Dumpling Gang surrounding me, Ms. Percy came rushing back to me. She could scare the bejesus out of me even all these years later.

I excused myself and went to my car, placed my library card in the cup holder and firmly locked the door behind me. I wasn’t going to take any chances that this new library system would have any reason to call their own version of Ms. Percy out to greet me.

Then, with my parking ticket in hand, I opened the car door and marched right through the front doors of the library and up to the front desk were the validating machine sits. I proceeded to validate the crap out of that ticket, just like any normal person would. No fish eye looks from the librarians. None of them acted as if they cared. I felt I had dodged a bullet. My picture must have been taken down many years ago.

When I returned to my car, the gang was gone, moving on to liberate some other driver from the tyranny of a $4.00 parking fee. I put my card back into my wallet and smiled. I just let Ms. Percy affect my behavior. Something I felt sure she would have completely approved of.

Light & Love,

Anna O’Keefe