Local librarian offers quiet lessons and friendship

November 25, 2011

By Karen Brenner

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(Flickr/Geoff Coupe)
Writer Karen Brenner reflects on a librarian who made a special mark on her when Brenner first moved to Chicago.

Chicago’s 2012 budget passed unanimously last week. Initially Mayor Emanuel proposed steep cuts to public libraries. The final budget restored some funds, so, the layoffs and scaled-back branch hours will not be as severe. That likely came as a relief to Chicagoans who count on their libraries for more than just the latest hardcover. Take Chicago writer Karen Brenner; she told Eight Forty-Eight about a soft spot she has for a librarian who played a special role in her own life.

When we first moved to Chicago I was scared to death. I was from a small town in the South—a  young wife with two babies—when I came to live in this unknown city. I remember walking our children in their baby buggy through the streets of Lakeview, humming the theme from the Rocky movie to give myself courage to face the unrelenting concrete and the cold streets. It was the late ’70s and Rocky was still cool and Lakeview wasn’t yet  

One solace in those lonely days was the small Chicago branch library in our neighborhood; it was just a two-room library. There was a small office with the head librarian’s name on the door, Marilyn; the sort of name for movie stars, not shy librarians.

At first I didn’t notice the bookshelf that stood alone near the library entrance. One day I saw that one of the books on this shelf was pushed out a little, standing in front of the others. It was a book by a rather obscure English writer, Barbara Pym. I was so taken with the writing that I stood by the shelf reading until someone asked me to move. Two weeks later, I returned the Pym book and searched the same shelf for another great find. Once again, I saw a book pushed out slightly ahead of its mates. I pulled out a P.G. Wodehouse book and found myself laughing out loud as I read. It was in this way that I was introduced to a whole host of wonderful writers. The unseen hand that guided me had an eclectic and eccentric approach to literature. I began to believe that my silent teacher was Marilyn, the shy head librarian.

While I was being quietly introduced to the likes of Anne Tyler and Tom Wolfe, my children were growing up and learning to love the library and reading, too. When our son Frankie turned four, he asked if he could have his own library card. The impatient, part-time librarian behind the desk—not Marilyn—told him that a four year old couldn’t read or write and that he was too young for his own card. Frankie, peered over the counter as he stood on tiptoe and informed the librarian that he could certainly read and he could write his own name, too. Suddenly Marilyn appeared with a wooden box in her hands. She invited Frankie to stand on the box and proudly handed him his first library card. She stood back watching with delight as my son painstakingly wrote each letter of his name on the card. I looked at Marilyn, wanting to say thanks, but we were both too shy.  

Recently, I passed by the little library that had been my home away from home when our children were small. I decided to stop in and finally tell the head librarian that we were all very grateful for the help and guidance she gave to all of us years earlier. I went to the circulation desk and asked to speak to her. The young girl behind the counter looked stricken and then informed me that Marilyn had died two years ago.

I walked the few steps to the shelf by the library entrance. Now it held only bestsellers and all the books lined up perfectly. Marilyn had been my first friend in Chicago; my mentor in literature and a champion for my children. I had never had a conversation with her, never told her how much she and the library meant to us. Now it was too late to thank her. As I ran my hands over the perfectly lined up bestsellers, it occurred to me that perhaps, Marilyn had taught me one last lesson, the importance of thanking those people who touch our lives. I found an old Barbara Pym book and carefully placed it in the middle row of the shelf by the library entrance. I pulled the Pym book out just a little so that it stood out from the others, a small homage to my silent teacher and my first friend in Chicago, Marilyn, the head librarian.