Leichhardt library is located in the Italian Forum, one of Sydney’s most bemusing tourist destinations. Every time I cross the Forum – which is an Italian-style square with restaurants all around it and apartments above – there are groups of tourists, standing, unsure what to do with themselves. Some take photos, others just stare, and probably wonder why on earth this place was listed in their guidebook.
At night time the Forum picks up a bit, but it is ghostly in the daytime, and has been so consistently the many times I’ve passed through it. Leichhardt library was my local library for years, a five minute walk from my house. I’d go there often, and every day in summer, to work away on things.
I used to visit the previous Leichhardt library too, which was off Marion st, a somewhat damp and dingy building with the atmosphere of a dark, book-lined maze. It moved from there when the Forum was built, and despite the large sign (shown here with some bored tourists), the library itself is poked into a corner, next to a ramp to the Norton St level, and on the way to the toilets.
As unpleasant as this sounds, the library itself is a haven of refreshingly cold air conditioning and, as it runs down one side of the Forum, is lined by windows and full of light. The windows must be double glazed, as you can see the planes flying low overhead but not hear them. This was another reason I would leave my house and come here, to escape the regular planes that shook my house as they screamed in to land.
As with any place one visits regularly, I got to recognise all of the staff and develop favourites. When walking there I’d wonder if I’d get the guy with the beard, or the pink haired girl, the serious man with the shifty look, or the woman who always wears the white cotton gloves. Would I get the woman who once detained me for fifteen minutes, blaming me for a cataloguing error for some Werner Herzog documentaries? I hoped not.
I returned the books I’d read over Christmas, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño and Reading by Moonlight by Brenda Walker. I had intended to read Great Expectations but then got caught up in the Bolaño, which was long enough to take me a good month to read. At first I wasn’t sure about it, did I really want to read the story of a young, male poet’s sexual awakening? But the book quickly diverged from that tack, and I felt pleasantly lost in it. I’d invested a lot of time in the Bolaño, I was a bit sad to return it. It was immediately claimed by the serious man, who was on the other side of the return chutes.
Closest to the front desk is the magazines and newspapers, and a long, red seat on which people were sitting reading. A girl in a black dress and cloven-hoof shoes sat reading an issue of Wallpaper, while I stared at the cover of TIME magazine, which had a cover with “2012 User’s Guide – Everything You Need to Know about the Year Ahead” on it. I felt like I should pick it up, but I didn’t. I will go blindly into this year.
The busiest part of Leichhardt library is around the centre, where the DVDs are. The library has an excellent collection of DVDs, with lots of horror films that are hard to find, so Simon tells me. There are always a few people browsing in this section, no matter how quiet the library is. Today a man with a scar on his cheek clasped a copy of Vincent, while he looked through the racks for more movies. Vincent van Gogh looked sadly out at me above the man’s hand.
While the DVD section is good, I usually only glance over the DVDs on display. I will more often flip through the CDs though, which, while not being quite as comprehensive as the DVDs, can sometimes have something interesting. My attention was drawn towards this explosive bear cover art:
I’ve not heard of the band, and it was hard to imagine what a CD with this on the front would sound like, beyond explosive.
The CDs are near the information desk, where you are sent when your card expires, when you have a complex enquiry, or when you’re in trouble. On the other side of this desk is the screen where you book a computer to use the internet, and there is usually someone standing there frowning at it. The computers are in a glass-walled room which has the miserable atmosphere of any public internet terminal. Sometimes there are classes for seniors and I like to look in at them learning how to use Word, or to send an email.
I was on my way to visit my own book, which is part of the library’s collection. When I was younger, and long before I had a book published I would imagine the book I might write on the shelf and the books it would be next to. I assumed I’d write a novel, so I imagined myself in the B’s, rather than the 920s, in between a book about Johnny Cash and Twentieth Century Women of Courage. I could tell that the most read story in my book was the one about the Olympia Milk Bar, as the book opened to it straight away and there were stains on the page, tea stains perhaps. I stopped examining my own book and put it back on the shelf. I perhaps could have been worried someone I know was going to come along and catch me at it, but in the years I’ve been visiting Leichhardt library I have never once see anyone I know in there.
When I emerged at the other end of the shelves, near the windows, I noticed two people working on the indoor plants. They were dressed in identical jeans and blue shirts and were briskly watering, trimming and dusting the indoor palms. This caught my fancy and I sat and watched them work. The man was the faster of the two, flicking a feather duster over the leaves of one plant while the woman watered another and checked some kind of monitor poked into the soil. She smiled at me when she saw me looking. Perhaps she had seen the book I was holding. I’d picked it up just before I sat down. Grow Your Own Drugs is of course not what you would first suspect, it is how to grow and use medicinal plants, how to make hair rinse out of nettles and cholesterol lowering concoctions using hawthorn berries. Of course I will make none of these, but I like the idea that I might.
As I sat there, a tough little girl stomped past. She would have been about 4 years old, and had short cropped hair and a gold Christmas bauble on a green string around her neck. Rather than look cute, it looked tough, like she was daring you to say she looked ridiculous. She stomped down to the kid’s section at the back of the library and started to boss around a giant teddy bear that was slumped against the wall.
I decided I’d borrow Grow Your Own Drugs. I liked the idea of perusing herbal potions at home. I’ve been to so many libraries for Biblioburbia that I haven’t been a member of I almost forgot I could borrow items from Leichhardt. On my way out I looked over the new books, as I always do, hoping to find something interesting. I don’t have much luck with this section, though:
The self check machine that has been out of order for years had finally been removed, and replaced with a stack of local papers. I don’t like going up to the counter, for fear of fines. Even if you owe 50c you are seriously informed of your debt here, with the suggestion of payment hovering like a cloud. The serious man checked my card and I had a feeling of nervousness, like I was at the doctors awaiting results of a test. I’m usually pretty good with library fines but I resent paying them. This time I was in the clear, and was allowed to borrow my book.
I went out the back way, rather than through the Forum, which is down the alleyway that runs behind Parramatta Rd. There is an old sign above a carport here for the Riviera Coffee Lounge, a secret message I always look for.