The Public Library in my community is the kind of library I used to dream about during the years I lived in Japan. Letters from friends in the US occasionally spoke of library services available to local residents, and I absorbed the information with great envy. The system is very different in Japan, and unless you visit specialized libraries in inconvenient locations, the number of books in English is always small. As far as English goes, well-known classics are not rare, but contemporary writers remain poorly represented in most Tokyo libraries.
Now I find myself in library heaven, awash in a dozen or so member services, and overloaded with books, magazines, newspapers, music on CD and movies on DVD. There are at least two dozen computers provided for patrons, and for those bringing a laptop the WI-FI is free. Several services are offered via home computer, things like renewals, reservations and requests to other branches—all of which thrill me with their quick efficiency. It’s probably quite ordinary to people long familiar with the local library system in the US, but to me it seems like free candy.
Along with the huge collection of DVDs—movies, including foreign films, documentaries and television series—the service I enjoy most is the sale of donated books. There is a large box-like receptacle at the entrance for those who want to get rid of old (or new) books from home. Each time I go to the library, probably four or five times each week, my first stop is at the big cache of donated books. They are not free for the taking, but must first be processed by library personnel before being added to the shelves of the far from small library “bookstore.”
I have found a method to get the books I want after a wait of several days. I’m not sure if other patrons use the same method, but it has yet to fail me. I take the book I am interested in to the desk and ask that they hold it for me until the processing is complete. The only worry is the possibility that the person processing the book might scribble a price on the front cover with pen, pencil, or in one case grease pencil.
In this manner, I have gotten a first edition hardback of Walter Mosley’s 1996 A Little Yellow Dog, another first of his 2002 book, Bad Boy Brawly Brown, and a first edition of the newest Barbara Kingsolver novel, The Lacuna. At the point I found this last book in the library box, I was very near buying a copy at Barnes & Noble for $26.99. Except for the seemingly indelible grease pencil price scrawled across the front cover, the book is as new and unmarked as anything in Barnes & Noble. I paid $3.30. The two Mosley books were a dollar each.
But these three books pale in comparison to my ‘Find of the Year.’ Last week I was casually looking through a stack of donated books when I found beneath an old Danielle Steele book something that made my heart stop. First thing I did was look over my shoulder to see if another book lover was hovering nearby. The book in my hand was a hardback 1960 J.B. Lippencott first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—in fine condition. To my slight disappointment, I saw printed on the inside flap the words, ‘Book Club Edition.’ Unfortunately, those three little words take a few thousand off the book’s value. However, it’s still worth considerably more than the outrageous price the library charged me for the book three days after reserving it. I went through the usual process and reminded them I would return in a few days.
Upon my return, and following a few minutes of heavy bargaining, I realized they weren’t going to come down on the price. When I finally said okay, that I would pay what they were asking, the little old lady librarian snatched up a pen, millimeters away from scratching the price on the book’s front cover, when I dropped to my knees, hands raised in prayer shouting, “PLEASE DON’T!!” She smirked, said okay and wrote the price on a scrap of paper. I took the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird to the desk and paid the full price—30¢.