Avalon is far north of the city, on a skinny headland that, on the map, looks fragile next to the great blue of the Tasman Sea. Whenever I think of Avalon the Roxy Music song comes in my head. I could hear Bryan Ferry’s voice crooning to me as I negotiated my way through the endless pedestrian crossings that make up the shopping area of Avalon.
The photo of the Avalon library on their website was taken on a sunny day, but I had chosen to visit on the most inclement summer day one could imagine. I would make no beach visit today, but this made it a perfect day to go to the library. Despite the disguising gloom I recognised the building, which houses both the library the Recreation Centre.
The library is upstairs and outside the doors were two trolleys of books for sale. Rather than the usual begrimed copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the books on these trolleys were a cut above the usual. I also liked the polite phrasing of the sign:
I picked out two books, a copy of Prozac Nation and a biography of Catherine the Great. I’d owned a copy of Prozac Nation when I was a teenager, and more interested in things like being “young and depressed in America”, as it says on the cover. I picked it up now as I’d just read a message from my friend Steph, someone who once she starts books has to finish them, where she said this was one of the few books she couldn’t stand to finish. I noticed that there was a bookmark on page 13, from a bookshop in Avalon. The reader of this copy had not got very far either.
The Catherine the Great book was safer, at least it was certain not to mention prescription drugs or Mommy, Daddy and Harvard on every page.
Avalon library is a Community Library, which means that it is staffed by volunteers. There were plenty of volunteers, mostly woman, clustered at the front desk, chatting. It seemed like a very pleasant place to work. As soon as I entered I noticed a poster above the photocopier:
There were a few unexpected touches such as this. Another one was the basket of puzzles available for loan:
Near the entrance was a display of “New and/or interesting Fiction”, as well as New and/or interesting Non-fiction and Large print, each of which had an individual sign on the corresponding shelf. A few people were browsing here, but the part that I found interesting was the collage of the covers of new books, which were stuck onto sheets of red cardboard and affixed to the windows of the office area.
It was an unusual approach to a new book display, but actually a rather good one, as it was much more informative than reading a list, and also had a pleasing appearance, like shingle tiles. Behind this I could see into the office area, where a man was covering a book in soft plastic. On the same desk was a box of stickers for the different genres and the stamps and stickers that make a book an Avalon Library book.
Because the staff were volunteers, the library had a much more cheerful atmosphere than at a regular library. There was a lot of tea and coffee making going on, and plenty of coming and going of volunteers. “I’m off to my creative writing course!” one woman announced to the rest, and went on to explain that it was through the Avalon Active Seniors’ Group when another woman expressed interest. The woman who asked about it then said she wasn’t sure if she was active enough to be a member.
I went off to look at the shelves. One of the books on display was in the style of old girl’s annuals and was called The Girl’s Book: how to be the best at everything. It included how to make your own lipgloss and how to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, as well as many more projects, both useful and ridiculous. While there was no doubt some good information in this book, I was worried about the message that “how to be the best at everything” sent to the teenage girls this book was obviously marketed towards. Girls get told they have to be good, and good at things their whole lives. It can be quite liberating to do something badly but enjoy doing it nevertheless.
While I was looking at this book one of the volunteers came up with a young woman who I noticed had been instructed on the ways of the library a little earlier. I knew from this conversation that she was starting university this year, so she would have been at least a third of the age of most of the volunteers. Her job was to tidy up the shelves. “These books are quite heavy, but you’re young and strong,” said the woman showing her how to do it. Most important was pushing forward the books that had slipped towards the back of the shelf.
I was looking in the art and craft section, and pulled out a book about Bottle Collecting.
The book went into a lot of detail about digging for bottles, and the resulting dangers, such as having your “search hole” cave in on you. I liked that it was a practical guide, rather than just being about searching in antique shops. The book gave many examples of different bottles and different collections, such as this collection:
And this bitters bottle from the 19th century in the shape of a pig.
I had taken this book over to a desk by the window to look at it. On a clear day you would be able to see the beach from here, and I could make out just a little of the blue grey water in between the palms and Norfolk Island Pines. Below, on the street, people rushed to the safety of their cars and sheltered under umbrellas.
When I took the bottle collecting book back, the girl was still shelf straightening her way through the Dewey Decimal numbers. I opened a book about jewellery making and noticed that on the date due slip, the last number to be stamped there was 2011. This was unusual, most libraries did away with date stamps a long time ago, and if date due slips remain in books they stop sometime in the early 2000s.
A few minutes later I heard it, the crunch of the date stamp as a man waited for his books to be checked out. Avalon Library does indeed still use the date stamp!
The conversations among the volunteers were still going. A new volunteer was telling the others what she was good at. “I can’t cut straight, I can’t draw a straight line but I’m happy to clean shelves,” she said. It was heartening that so many Avalon residents wanted to work at the library.
While it was a jolly atmosphere, in order to concentrate I had to go back to my spot by the window over the other side of the library. Here people sat at computers, looking things up on Ebay or writing emails. One very well dressed girl whose outfit was strangely matched with a pair of ugg boots, sat with a book open on her lap but her phone inside the book, sending messages.
I settled down to look at a book of symbols, in particular the Hobo Signs section. These signs were developed in the 1930s in the USA and were a language for the many homeless and itinerant people on the move, looking for work. This is a good idea and could be adapted for the more privileged, and used for things like parties (a warning symbol for “just 6 people sitting on milk crates” for example) or op shops.
Near where I was sitting was a long, panoramic photograph of Avalon from 1921. It was hand coloured, and this gave it the look of a painting. I only realised it was a photograph when I got close to it. Since I’ve been visiting libraries I’ve paid more attention to what hangs on library walls. Sometimes they’re in the community art genre, other times they are of some historical note. This painting was 90 years old and I imagine it moving from place to place, to finally come to rest here, in this bright, modern building. It looked like it needed leather arm chairs and bead-fringed lamps to really be at home.
The last book I looked at was called What Should I do with my life? I opened it to find out if there were any answers to that and the page I looked at put forward the scenario of receiving, at age 17, a letter telling you your destiny. I found this very hard to imagine, but when I looked up and saw the young woman straightening the shelves near me, and the volunteers behind the desk talking about John le Carre to a man borrowing a pile of novels, I knew that if I lived in Avalon, it would be simple. My destiny would be to work at the library.