The Hidden Treasure Beneath My Library
A true tale of books, librarians, a secret, and more books
I remember the city’s public library as a vast, intimidating building with a seemingly endless series of steps ascending to three different floors.
Of course, as I was only seven, any large building felt gigantic. But I think the modernist architecture was also to blame. It imbued the library with a feeling of coldness and severity.
This was not the place for running up and down the stairs or talking loudly among the book stacks. It was a place for people who were serious about their books and wanted to read in absolute silence. They would have preferred to live in the library all day long rather than going to work or school.
In fact, unlike the little public library in the little town where I lived, this library had its own auditorium and even a café in the lobby.
“But I thought you weren’t allowed to eat in libraries,” I remember saying to my mother as I stared at her wide-eyed when she bought me a bagel with cream cheese in the library café.
My mother explained quite logically that since the café was in the lobby and outside the book stacks, it didn’t break any library rules. And wasn’t it nice to be able to sit at a table while she enjoyed a coffee and I enjoyed my bagel and we flipped through the sky-high stack of books I’d just checked out?
Yes, I had to agree it was.
But the café was not the most wonderful part of this library. Not at all.
The library held a secret. And the librarians were very particular about who they revealed this secret to.
Now, my mother has just read what I’ve written, and she knows the secret I’m about to tell you, and she is quick to point out that I’ve gotten my libraries mixed up.
The one with the secret was not the one with the café.
You see, my mother used to take me to what felt like hundreds of different libraries when I was a child. The towns and cities were all very close together and each had its own library with its own distinct personality.
And I’m afraid that now that I’ve grown up sometimes my memories of the libraries begin to merge together. And the two biggest libraries have become only ‘the one big library.’
But I can already hear you saying that you don’t care about that. You just want to know what the secret was.
Well, let’s imagine that it was in the library with the café because a library with a café must have a bit of enchantment about it, no?
And let’s imagine that it was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of a hot and humid summer.
And there I am stepping through the doors of the library into the welcoming coolness of the air conditioning.
This time I am with my mother and father and older brother. My brother is so close in age to me that we are often mistaken for twins. We rush ahead of our parents, who tell us to slow down. But since I am writing this, I can skip ahead as fast as I like so we can get to the secret sooner.
So here we are flying through the maze of book stacks. The ceiling of the first floor seems to slope down lower and lower as we head to the back of the library. And when we arrive, the lights have dimmed, and all is draped in shadows.
There is a door with a sign that reads “Friends of the Library.” And when you go through the door, you find yourself in a small room with rows of shelves crammed to bursting with books.
Cheery shouts of hello greet you. These come from the two librarians who preside over the stacks with watchful eyes.
They are both shorter than my parents, though one of the librarians is slightly taller than the other. They both have silver hair, though one’s is slightly whiter. And both are named for months — one is April, the other June.
I always had trouble telling them apart.
So let’s say that today April is wearing a blue blouse, and June is in yellow. And they welcome my family into this small room at the back of the library where you are not allowed to borrow any of the books.
No, indeed. For these books are for sale.
If you open one of the books, you must look in the upper right hand corner of the flyleaf to see the price written in soft gray pencil. Usually, it is only five cents or twenty-five cents.
Why, at that price you could buy enough books for a very respectable library of your own!
You hurry to the shelves and begin searching through all those titles. And you smile with delight when you find a book that you once borrowed from the library and fell in love with and now you can buy it and take it home and place it proudly on your bookshelf and read it as many times as you like without ever worrying about having to say goodbye to it.
But wait! Wait!
This still isn’t the secret.
You see, the books in this little bookshop are a bit shabby. And, usually, you must hunt and hunt to find any truly good titles.
The librarians, however, can spot a book lover within seconds. They see you take down a book with care and lovingly inhale the musky fragrance of its pages.
You can imagine how thrilled they were when they first discovered an entire book loving family.
On this day, after my family and I have entered the bookshop, June gestures us all aside.
“I’d like to share a secret with you,” she says. And she brings out a cardboard box with three history books bound in beautiful brown leather that are just the sort my father loves.
“I’d like to take you to a place that has more books like these,” she says. “Books for each of you.”
Of course, we do not need to be asked twice. She leads us out of the bookshop to the library’s elevator.
When the doors open and we step inside, she takes out a key from her pocket and inserts it into a lock under the row of buttons. Then she presses one of the buttons, and we are heading down to a floor we never knew existed.
The doors slide open again, and we step out.
There is nothing to see just yet. It looks like an ordinary basement with a concrete floor and gray walls, but there is a feeling of hushed solemnity about the place. My brother and I are now quiet with expectation as we follow after June and our parents to the large doors on the left.
June pauses before the doors, and I can see that even she is filled with excitement for what she is about to show us. With the proud smile of a theater director who is about to pull back the curtain, she opens the doors and beckons us to pass through.
And this is what I see when I enter: a vast treasure chamber filled with miles of book stacks. The stacks are so high that I will need a ladder to reach the top of them. Even my father, who is the tallest of all of us, will have to stand on a stool to take down the books from the very top shelves.
My mother reads this now and says that of course it wasn’t really miles. But, no, I think she is wrong, for I remember how long it took me to run from one end to the other. You could have stayed for hours there and never have managed to read the title of every book on the shelves.
There is no one else in the windowless, mysterious room except the five of us. And all I hear as I walk down one of the aisles walled on either side by books are the sound of my own footsteps — tap, tap, tap on the concrete floor.
My eyes dance from one book’s title to another, but I read them without comprehending. My head is still filled with the wonder of this place. Imagine what it must be like at night! Surely, there must be a dragon lurking in the shadows and patiently guarding this hoard as if it were just as precious as gold and jewels.
“Why are there so many books here?” I ask June when she comes to see what novels I’ve found. “Why aren’t they in the library?”
“Well, the libraries buy new editions,” she explains. “There’s only so much space on the shelves, and they can’t have too many copies of the same book. And we also get so many donations.”
Her eyes look almost sad. She continues, “Many of these books are no longer wanted. They’ve been forgotten down here. I’m afraid the ones we do not sell in the next few years, well, I don’t know what the library will do with them.”
She invites us down into the library’s secret treasure chamber on many more occasions. Always we return to our house with the trunk of our car brimming with paperbacks and hard covers.
My favorite finds are the ones that have a message scrawled on the flyleaf. One of them might read, “Merry Christmas, Billy! With love, Susan.” There is an entire story contained in just those words.
Sometimes I even find a book signed by the author!
Let us now jump forward many years. It’s a rainy autumn afternoon in the little town where I live. Over a decade has passed since that day when June first took my family to see the secret book stacks in the basement of the library.
I am no longer a child. Many of the books I bought back then have now been packed away in some corner of my house and gradually forgotten.
The “Friends of the Library” bookshop closed long ago. Perhaps it was because April or June became sick or perhaps because people no longer wished to buy books.
In fact, scientific studies have been conducted to investigate the latter phenomenon that has occurred over the past ten years. And their findings are astounding. Yes, it is true. Hardly anyone reads books anymore.
But I am one of the exceptions.
Here I am in my room, curled up on my bed, safe from the rain drumming gently on the window. And I have not outgrown my childhood obsession. An obsession whose first sprouts were carefully watered by my parents and two little old librarians.
I am bent over the pages of a book.
The book is a large, thick paperback. The title is written in a language I have only just begun to learn. La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
As I decipher the strange and beautiful new words, I am no longer in my room but whisked away to the heart of Barcelona. I follow a young boy and his father down the twisting streets of the city that is bathed in morning light. The father has promised to show the boy a wonderful secret.
What can it be?
He calls it the cemetery of forgotten books: an immense library with a labyrinth of bookshelves filled with every kind of book you can imagine.
The father tells his son,
“This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here.”
As I read those lines, a flood of memories pulls me from the book’s pages. My mouth drops open slightly.
How could Ruiz Zafón have described the library of my childhood so perfectly?
Was it then truly a magical place as I had always imagined? How many of these cemeteries of forgotten books exist in this world?
And I wonder above all — what happened to all of those books my family bought?
There are books stacked two deep on the shelves of my room’s bookcase, but most of them are new books I bought for my high school and college classes.
I stroke my chin thoughtfully and consider investigating. Maybe up in the attic?
Unfortunately, however, I have become rather busy over the course of the past decade. On this particular day, I don’t have any extra time to devote to cleaning up an attic in the search for forgotten books…
And now we must jump forward again. I am sorry if your head is spinning from so many leaps forward in time. But if you had the power to leap forward and backward in time, wouldn’t you take advantage of it too?
It is summer again and more than five years have passed before I’ve had time to make that expedition up into the attic. And now it is out of necessity.
My family is selling my childhood home and moving far away. We must choose which things we will pack up from every room and which things we can’t take with us and must say goodbye to.
I open the attic’s trapdoor, pull down the ladder, and peer up into the darkness. The ladder is rickety, but I climb it quickly with empty cardboard boxes in my arms. I place them down on the wood floor and switch on the light.
I feel like an explorer for the attic looks like wild, uncharted territory. Things have been stored here willy-nilly over the course of these many long years. There are boxes and crates and tubs and even someone’s abandoned suitcases all scattered about in haphazard piles. Well, this will be quite an undertaking!
Then, I enter a little room off to the left (I have to stoop down to pass through the door), and I soon discover that it contains the entire history of my childhood.
There is my dollhouse abandoned in one corner. It is a beautiful colonial painted blue with a white wraparound porch. But when I peer around the back, I see that it is only a skeleton of the house I used to play with.
All of its furniture and each of the members of its miniature family were wrapped in tissue paper and carefully packed away into boxes long ago. And, yet, there is something about the house.
When I gaze into its rooms, they are still shrouded in the many stories that I created when I played with the dollhouse as a child.
Those stories shroud everything in this room. The boxes of porcelain dolls, the boxes of tchotchkes bought in gift shops on so many family vacations, the boxes of photo albums — and then I see the bookcases.
They line two walls, and they are crammed full of books of every shape and size.
Curious George. Babar. Madeline. Christopher Robin. The March Sisters. Anne of Green Gables. Taran and Eilonwy. Hans Brinker. Impunity Jane.
A thousand worlds, a thousand characters, a thousand adventures, a thousand memories.
I take them from the shelves and can’t resist flipping through many of them. But, finally, I remember the task before me.
I retrieve the cardboard boxes and begin to fill them with books. Then I carry them down the ladder — not a very easy business! The boxes overflow in the garage where I temporarily store them so my family can sort through these memories.
What will we do with all of these books? We certainly cannot take them with us. But how to choose which ones to part with?
I line up boxes of books on the driveway. I beg my friends and neighbors to rescue a few copies. All of the books are free. Take as many as you like.
But no one reads books anymore. Hardly anybody wants them. The books languish in the hot rays of the sun.
I set aside the books I can’t part with. The ones that are irreplaceable — editions long out of print with illustrations that are inextricably tied to my childhood memories.
And the rest?
The trunk of the car brims with books as my mother and I drive to the library. In the lobby, there is a white bin displaying the word “donations” in large block letters. We cart boxes from the car and tip the contents into the bin.
Will they find their way back to one of the cemeteries of forgotten books? Does the secret treasure chamber in the basement of the library still exist?
I hold a well-loved copy of Charlotte’s Web in my hand. It’s a book I read so many times as a child that I memorized the opening paragraphs. I almost regret my decision to drop it into the bin.
But surely in one of the little towns or cities surrounding this library there must still be a seven-year-old girl or boy who loves to read. And one day, I hope, the book will find its way into their hands.
I let go of the book and watch it fly away down the chute and land softly on a pile of books at the bottom of the bin.
Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. By day, she works with business owners and creatives to help them clarify their websites’ messaging and craft compelling words that resonate with their audience. By night, you’ll probably find her writing a story or reading a good book. Get her favorite writing and productivity tips from famous writers.