I rarely pass the corner of Fillmore and Cruise Streets in my hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, that I don’t picture my mother looking out the front passenger window of our ’57 Chevy, shaking her head at the site of where Rubel’s Department Store once stood. From my backseat spot, I heard her sigh, time after time, “Tore down Rubel’s for a Kent’s Dollar Store. A KENT’S Dollar Store!”
My memories of Rubel’s have decades less duration than hers. If I was ever inside the store, I don’t clearly remember. The vague imagery I have of its interior is more likely cobbled together from what I heard over the years than from what I actually saw. My clearest memory is of the exterior: a massive red brick structure that rose skyward and loomed right outside my car window, as we passed on the way to church three times a week. Its presence pressed hard toward Fillmore Street, but my relationship with it was mainly born of the connection my parents had to it.
They grieved when it was gone. A part of their identity and a way of framing their community left when a pale brick building, hunkering close to the ground, claimed the same spot.
Before I had the words to express what I was aware of, I knew on a level below the surface that my family’s connection to the architecture of this town was about more than buildings. Their stories were built within edifices that might be left standing only in their memories, but those structures remained as significant as when they were mortar and brick, board and nail.
This brings me, by a circuitous path through time and town, to the Corinth Library. Pulling into the familiar parking lot, I remind myself, more than I want to admit, of my mother and Rubel’s.
The current Corinth Library was built in 1969. Here’s the spot where I feel a kinship with my parents, aware that I too have experienced changes in this town, for in spite of its construction year, my mind persists in calling a forty-six year old structure The New Library, and I allow my mind to have its way.
Before there was The New Library, with its expansive clerestory windows and its sturdy tables and chairs with the pale wooden legs and laminate surfaces that have served users dependably and with its balcony that has intrigued decades of children as only a balcony can, there was another library with single windows and oak furnishings and a stairway leading to another mysterious upper floor, off-limits to the likes of elementary-aged me.
Before there was The New Library, where I spent hours as a high school junior contracting for an “A” in Mrs. Mildred Myers’s American History class, where I did all research that couldn’t be accomplished at home with the treasured beige and green set of World Book Encyclopedias, there was another library with shelves upon shelves of knowledge and adventure, riches to be explored upon presentation of nothing but a magical card and a signature.
Before there was The New Library, where I, as a young woman, browsed glossy periodicals I couldn’t afford to buy and checked out art books before the Internet made every facet of art accessible with a couple of clicks and where I first saw the work of local painters hanging in the auditorium, there was another library with a sunny room to the right of the entrance, its white shelves full of children’s books illustrated with bright colors and extraordinary characters that leapt from over-sized pages like paintings in motion.
Before there was The New Library, where brick and soaring glass create an airy space that shifts with the seasons drifting across the sky, where boots and sandals sound the same — muffled by industrial carpeting — there was another library where wooden floors welcomed me into a cool hush smelling of leather and paper and ink, the dusty scent of accumulation a comforting relief from the heat of summer.
Before there was The New Library there was what will always be, to me, The Real Library.
When summers stretched beyond imagination and school holidays loitered instead of speeding past, my mother could comfortably drop me off at Sterling’s or Kuhn’s to wander the aisles, with my pocketed allowance money, while she made her Thursday round of errands in town.
Or I could ask to go to the library.
A crisp white building, with starched angles and two stories, it sported dark shutters aside the simple double hung windows and a welcoming portico that had once been part of a wraparound porch, long gone. When it wasn’t making rounds, the Bookmobile would be parked alongside the building. During the school year, it occasionally came to West Corinth School, leaving me mesmerized by the idea of a library on wheels. I was pretty sure that to drive the bookmobile would be the best job in the world.
The sparkle of sunlight danced through the leaves of trees that lined the gravel drive and parking lot on the south side of the building, especially in summer when, when the most pressing hurry was to look through as many books as I could before Mother’s errands brought her back around to pick me up. I don’t believe there was ever a time I approached the front door that I didn’t feel a nervous stir of anticipation: I was about to step into a hallowed space that opened onto the world of imagination.
I trust my impressions of that space more than I do precise memories; it was the sensations that arose in my pliable younger self that remain firm, to this day.
The entrance, with its checkout desk presided over by Augusta Richardson, received ambient light from The Children’s Room, jutting streetward on the right of the entry. Henrietta Byrd was on duty too, but Mrs. Augusta, as if she knew the random times I’d be dropped off, was as ever present as a sentinel (and with a similar bearing), guarding that sunlit room to the right.
Oh, The Children’s Room! I can still see the glitter of dust motes on the slanted rays of early afternoon light. It might as well have been fairy dust.
If only Mrs. Augusta would cease with her suggestions and let me browse in peace, the magical spell wouldn’t be broken. Shhhhhh… I so wanted to do the unthinkable and shush the librarian! But I tried to be a good girl and, frankly, I was rather terrified of displeasing the woman so, more than once, I left with books of her choosing instead of mine. Second graders in 1962 didn’t easily disagree with grownups who were tall and authoritative.
Stepping up to the checkout desk to present my selections to Mrs. Augusta, I imagined what it would be like to approach the throne of God and be found wanting. Did God have a cocked eyebrow like Mrs. Augusta? Hmmm… I felt slight courage and great trepidation every time I pressed on with Tales of King Arthur and the like, instead of the stories about rosy-cheeked children she kept steering me toward.
But finally there was that time when I was older, probably in fifth grade —and I still have no clue how this happened — that I checked out a John Steinbeck book and read strange grown-up words that I didn’t understand about life far outside The Children’s Room. Far outside The Young Adult literature I frequented now. The look on Mrs. Augusta’s face when I returned the adult narrative left her mouth agape. Speechless.
I had finally silenced the librarian.
Played out in The Real Library by an unsuspecting but well-meaning antagonist and the child that I was, I still look back on that as one of the most satisfying episodes of my life.
The New Library has gone through its own changes over time. I miss the wooden card catalog, its former space now filled with shelving for new arrivals, and its purpose fulfilled by keyboards and screens on a kiosk where I never have to stoop down to tug out a bottom drawer. There’s more shelving than there used to be, more books. Computers take up spaces where books once lined walls and tables stood. The expanse of clerestory windows has blinds now, relief against the intensity of sunlight that has, more than once, stabbed me in the eye.
Mrs. Augusta, who quieted patrons early on in the The New Library as well as in The Real Library, has been followed by a succession of keepers of the books, who oversee technology, periodicals, and DVDs, as well as a selection of books in audio.
My mother’s grief about Rubel’s Department Store certainly didn’t hold her back from frequenting Kent’s Dollar Store. I clearly remember shopping there with her, listening to the conversations of adults interacting with each other, shaping my own memories of childhood. The woman did love a good buy, wherever it came from.
I miss The Real Library that lives in my memory, yet I strongly value The New Library, a significant community resource that keeps changing with the times. With its meeting spaces, public computers, and ongoing exhibits in the auditorium, it has offered services to the Corinth area for forty-six years that the tall white structure couldn’t.
Like my mother, I feel the past and the present colliding within me as I go about my errands in this town. The people and the places that defined and shaped who I was as a child — gone now for years— still cast a long shadow across my life.
Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.