The distance between Chatswood station and Archer street has shrunk in the years since I was a teenager. While there have been many changes since the 1990s, the Chatswood I knew has not disappeared so much as become renewed, and this is the case with the library.
I would sometimes visit the old Chatswood library, a rather dark and dank building situated behind the civic hall on Victoria Street. To get there you walked past a row of small shops selling things like surfwear and beads. To the right of the library entrance was a set of stairs that led through to an alleyway and then Chatswood Chase shopping Centre, and at the top of these stairs was a community noticeboard festooned with layers of ads for cars, lounges and babysitting services. I would always stop to look over these messages, even though I would never reply to any of them.
There is still a stairway in the same position, although the civic square has been completely redone. The hall was demolished and replaced by the square, with a new hall on one side of it. The library entrance is at the back of the square, underneath a giant television screen but in roughly the same place it had been before.
There is a square of grass with one small shade-giving tree (yet to have been planted in the above image), underneath which a girl in a Body Shop t-shirt sat eating her lunch, looking miserable. Across from this is a restaurant called Shanghai 1938. My grandparents lived in Shanghai in the 1930s and had to flee Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese army invaded. They had to leave all their possessions behind and sometimes my grandmother would lament particular items that had been in their house, and my grandfather particularly lamented not being able to bring Polly, their African Grey Parrot who swore in Spanish, to England. But one doesn’t name a restaurant without doing research, so I’m sure they had a good reason to pick that date. Maybe chefs from the Japanese restaurant around the corner come in and take over Shanghai 1938 half way through your meal.
Chatswood library is below ground level, and at the entrance is the out of hours book return chute, with its surprisingly complex mechanism exposed. I would have thought all was needed was a chute, not all those electronics and an emergency stop button.
Before I entered the library I had sat on the side of the patch of grass, watching people entering and leaving the library. There was a lot of traffic in and out of the doors, the people entering walking briskly and purposefully, those leaving squinting against the light bouncing off the pale stones of the civic square. The square has only been open for a few months so perhaps over time something might be done about the glare. While the previous civic square was architecturally drab, at least there were trees and surfaces that absorbed light.
To escape the glare I joined those heading down the steps to the library. At the bottom of the steps was a row of lockers, one of which still had the key in it and was therefore available. This is the first library other than the state library where I’ve noticed lockers. I went up and investigated the locker, but didn’t have the $2 coin that I would have needed to lock it. I had a lot of silver coins and a New Zealand $2, which had somehow made its way into my wallet.
The library is a large underground space with a light well in the centre. Enclosed by the glass walls of the light well is a pool with a boat-shaped aluminium structure on it. Around this are study tables and lounges, most of which were occupied by people studying and reading. The brochure I’d picked up at the entrance told me that this was one of the biggest public libraries in NSW. I looked up from the brochure and realised that yes, the library was quite vast, and appeared to stretch in all directions.
How do you navigate such a space when you have no particular aim? I made my way to the far back corner. On the way I passed through the non fiction shelves, past another desk with many computers dwarfing the one small librarian behind them, and an exhibition of “Hats in History”. My favourites were the collapsible top hat and the hat box from David Jones accompanying a purely decorative pink hat with large flower on the brim.
Beyond the hat display was the local history section, where I settled down to look at the collection of Dawson’s Pink Pages from the 1980s. I picked out one of the Dawson’s Community Information Guides for Willoughby and took it over to one of the lounges in the centre of the library. As I found a place to sit an announcement came over the public address system: “Paging Georgia Pick. Could you please come to the Welcome Desk?” The term “welcome desk” is uncomfortably close to “people greeter” for my liking. I wondered what Georgia Pick looked like, and being too far away to see, I have only a vision of her as a grumpy teenager in slightly too tight shorts – “Pick” is not a surname with pleasant connotations.
I sat down on one of the black lounges and looked at the Community Guide.
I love looking at these kinds of publications and could do so endlessly. My favourite part of them is the ads. It is here you really get a sense of the times. Ads for wine bars, for macrame supplies, for new cars that would now be so old you would never even see one on the street anymore, for boutiques with names like “Boogie street clothing company”. As I read through I imagined a different Chatswood to the one that existed above me. After my library visit I could perhaps visit Prevue’s Georgian Room, “for the truly discriminating” and enjoy an open sandwich and glass of champagne.
As well as the ads there was a ten page feature on Royal North Shore Hospital, a place I have had reason to visit often over the past six months. The main hospital building is a dark brick hulk of rather Soviet appearance, whose days are numbered as construction of a new hospital reaches completion beside it. The current hospital building sits incongruously in its present surroundings, but I think in 1980 it would have seemed solid, rather than gloomy. Like the old 60s and 70s libraries, the hospital is to be renewed with a bright, 21st century design. The new buildings are vastly superior to the old, of course, but I always feel a bit sad for old civic buildings when they are being demolished. They give such service over the years but once replaced they are soon forgotten. I like to think that nothing is ever forgotten. For this reason I record as many details as possible.
I noticed that there were silver discs on the bottom of the pool, and I put down Dawsons and my reveries and leaned over to get a closer look at them. The discs were coins which must have been thrown down by people walking by above. There were a lot of 20c coins in particular, this must be the amount which people feel is equivalent to a wish.
One of my many favourite book as a child was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. In it a girl and her brother run away from home and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The story engages with the common childhood fantasy of hiding out in a shop, or museum, or indeed a library overnight. About halfway through the book they decide to have a bath in the fountain and discover that the bottom of the fountain is covered with coins. The miserly brother is delighted by this and whispers to his sister, “Income, Claudia, income!”.
The coins in the library pool were safely encased behind glass and inaccessible. I don’t know that people are superstitious enough these days to resist picking coins out of fountains. The pool is an artwork by Wendy Mills, a sculptor who has done a lot of public artworks. A plaque explained that the artwork refers to a Sumerian story in which the queen of heaven visits Enki, the god of wisdom, and is given “divine decrees about civilisation and culture”. He then regrets his gift and orders sea monsters to chase her, but she gets away and uses the decrees to benefit the city where she lives.
I returned the pink pages to the Local History section and found myself examining the Quarto section which was also near the back of the library. The Quartos stretched from here along the side wall, and I spent a lot of time here investigating the fashion and folklore and architecture books. I could see straight away that the library has a good collection of such books, and plenty of old and interesting books from the 70s. I particularly like 70s books as it must have been a time when printing became cheaper and so plenty of hardback studies of specific topics were released, in volumes with plenty of photographs and illustrations. My favourite book of this kind was Ephemeral Folk Figures: Scarecrows, Harvest Figures and Snowmen by Avon Heal and Ann Parker, published in 1969.
This was an example of finding the thing I didn’t know I was looking for, a feeling I often experience in op shops. These pictures of long since disintegrated scarecrows gave me a great feeling of discovery. I was so enraptured by this book I went in search of the photocopier. There were two photocopy rooms, one at the back of the library and another at the front, where I could buy a “casual ticket” in order to copy without having a library card. I applaud this system, it is much better than needing to have a library card, or having to buy a prepaid card for a determined amount. I went into the photocopy room and figured out the ticket dispensing machine. I tried to feed the machine my New Zealand coin but it couldn’t be fooled.
I copied ten or so of my favourite figures from the book, and I now present to you my favourite three, one from each category:
I returned to the treasureland of the Quarto section and spent a good hour looking at books about cravats throughout history: A Guide to Civilian Men’s Neckpieces 1655-1900, books of 1950s ads, The Rocking Horse Maker, guides to forgotten crafts from the 19th century, books of Persian mythology and other such fascinating knowledge I didn’t know I had an interest in.
On display above the shelves were some of the featured books from the collection.
Naturally Lost Buildings held great appeal for me, and I took it over to one of the small black seats that were positioned at the end of every row of shelves, for further inspection. The first item of interest from Lost Buildings was not a building, it was the Frost Fairs which were held on the Thames in London between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Frost Fairs were in the book as the demolition of the old London Bridge occurred some years after the last frost fair in 1814 and the new bridge combined with weather change to make further fairs impossible. I love images of markets from past times, and particularly like the idea of a Frost Fair. In the days when they were held England had much colder winters, so the Thames would freeze, something which it would be difficult to imagine these days.
Many of the lost buildings were English, as it was a book by an English writer. The Nonsuch Palace caught my attention, firstly because of the XTC album Nonsuch – the power of popular music to educate its fans is underrated. Built by Henry the 8th in the early 16th century and demolished in 1682, this palace got its name by virtue of the fact that “none such” palace was equal to its splendour. The splendid palace was demolished and the building materials sold to pay for the gambling debts of the countess who owned the property in the 17th century.
Many years ago there was an exhibition of demolished houses of Sydney. In some cases it was quite shocking to think of grand homes being demolished to make way for expressways and red brick apartment blocks. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, for of course things must change, the priorities at different points in history are what is interesting to me. By imagining these priorities you get closer to understanding what it would have been to live in those times.
At the risk of never leaving the Quarto section, I forced myself out into the general non-fiction area. There was a family browsing this section, parents and their teenage daughter, who held a teetering pile of books in one hand while attempting to take still more books off the shelf to look at. They had come to my attention as the girl’s mother had asked a nearby librarian what the maximum number of books one could borrow is. The librarian told them it was twenty. I tried to see what books there were on the pile but nothing stuck out. It was a mix of cookbooks, YA fiction, and audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry.
The first section I happened upon in non-fiction was health, and in particular longevity. I would not have known there was a section on longevity, but it makes sense in conjunction with ageing, for which there were also many books. I was ashamed to be interested, but I picked up Ageless, which had the question “What’s your longevity quotient?” on the front. I was curious as to what my quotient was, but as is always the case with such books, this is not reached by a simple calculation. I would be better off wasting my time with online life expectancy calculators (….hmmm I am really supposed to live to 97?). The advice in these books is exactly what you would expect, and the same as the advice in books about dieting: eat sensibly and exercise. There are whole shelves of these books with different ways to do these two things. I think a big part of reading these books is programming this simple message into your brain, so you can resist the world coming at you with its cream cakes and spit roasts and bottles of whiskey.
In the health section was a boy lying on a couch, reading the start of a thick book which I tried to glimpse the title of on the way past. All I could see was that, judging by the cover art, it was a fantasy book. He was so engrossed in reading it and I liked how he had taken his shoes off and left them beside him on the carpet in mid step.
I’d spent a lot of time in non-fiction so I took a walk around the other side of the library, where the kid’s section and the Chinese books are. I passed through the newspaper and magazine zone, where all the red lounge chairs were taken with people doing a variety of activities including reading, sleeping, making notes in a small Spirax notebook and sorting out one’s wallet. I could see over into the kid’s section where there was a reading area with a seat at the base of a sculpture of a tree with flames coming off its branches. What a lucky kid that gets to sit there, I thought, before getting close enough to see that a Chinese grandma was sitting in there instead.
I passed many desks where people were studying, in poses that ranged from alert to despairing. In the young adult section three teenage girls lay side by side on a bean bag, holding hands and giggling about the people they could see walking past outside. The library is below ground level but the open area with the pool in the centre enables you to see the people who are walking by up top. Everyone seemed to amuse these girls, no matter how normal or boring they looked.
I sat at a desk nearby for a little while, across from a miserable looking girl wearing a t-shirt with kittens on it. She had a pencilcase in the shape of a lion. The grubby lion sagged on the top of the desk, paws splayed out and its innards of pens exposed. When I sat down the girl gave me a mournful look before going back to her maths textbook.
I’d picked up Simple Etiquette in Russia (1990) from the reference section on my way through, and read a little of it as I sat at the desk. There was a section about eating: “An interesting common sight in the main streets are vending machines dispensing fizzy drinks for a few kopecks”. What this fails to mention about these vending machines is that they used a communal glass rather than vending individually bottled drinks. The glass rested on the grille underneath the dispenser, sometimes chained there to avoid theft. A water spout was provided for rinsing the glass before you used it.
The book also mentioned the new ice cream cafes where you could buy a glass of champagne to have with your ice cream, “an intriguing mix”.
I put this book back on the shelf and did a final circuit of the library. I was briefly distracted in the needlework and craft section for a little while, looking at a book of Soviet textiles while a woman behind me reminisced to the librarian about the many years she’d been coming to the library to read books about embroidery. The Soviet textiles had a lot of prints of locomotives, skaters, cogs and factories, broken down into wild constructivist patterns.
When I ascended the stairs and walked out into the square I was now the one blinking against the strong light. My eyes had got used to the comfortable ambience of the library, and the glare of Civic Square sent me on a mad scramble through my bag for sunglasses. Thus protected, I made sure to walk out past the edge of the light well and the pool, so the girls on the beanbag could see me and laugh.