When the first Jim Roselle Read-A-Thon took place in the spring of 2016 at the Prendergast Library, the meaningful words of the late, well-known radio personality and host of two programs on Jamestown’s WJTN radio station rang true for me and, I’m sure, many others: “A library card is the most valuable card in anyone’s wallet.” As it came to pass, the James Prendergast Library and I have had a long relationship, even after leaving my home town over fifty-five years ago.
When I was an elementary school child growing up in Jamestown, I was fortunate enough to attend the R. R. Rogers School on Sherman Street from Grades K through 6. I say fortunate because this school had its own well-stocked library and full-time librarian, something not every grade school in Jamestown had in the 1940s. The librarian’s name escapes me after all these years, but she oversaw all library activities, which often included class visits to this wonderful place where story time was anticipated by young children who had not yet learned to read on their own or were just beginning to make their way through the mysteries of the written word.
When reading and writing, actually printing, were well underway by the second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Selma Carlson, decided that her class should make a trip to the James Prendergast Library on Fifth Street so that all of her students could secure a library card of their own. I had no idea that such a place existed, and she was the person who introduced me to the wonderful world of books that went well beyond what my grade school library could offer. If you could print your name, you could get a library card! And with that knowledge and power in our grasp, we all set off one day to walk the long distance from Sherman Street to the Prendergast Library headed by Mrs. Carlson with our class, hand in hand, in tow.
In those days, the children’s room was located in the basement of the library, and one approached it by walking up the sidewalk to the front steps of the building and then making a sharp right turn to go down the steps that led to that large room. The door opened to a rather dimly lit long hall, and at the end of it was the brightness of the children’s room, wondrously filled with books and magazines on its many shelves, and a large fireplace against the back wall that served as the centerpiece for story hour each Saturday morning. It was always dazzling to emerge from such dimness to light, made even more inviting by the books that were ours to borrow once we possessed that coveted library card. I think it was one of the most important moments of my life, certainly one that made me feel very grown up, when I took my turn, in line with my classmates, to print my name and be presented with my very own card.
From that time on, I became a voracious reader and have remained so all of my life. In those early days, my older brother would walk me to the library. But once I had convinced my mother that I knew the way to the library from our home on Derby Street, which was the neighborhood that formed the southern boundary of Brooklyn Square, and I could navigate very busy streets on the walk uptown, she allowed me to make a weekly trip to the library. I think we could borrow only two books at a time then, and I soon found myself reading science fiction and mysteries by my favorite authors, making a beeline to those shelves, always hoping that some of the books I had not read would be there waiting for me.
In those days, the staff members were very conscious of young readers’ ages as well as protecting the morals of minors, and we were not permitted to borrow any books from the adult section of the library until about the age of twelve. With such oversight that was gently enforced, it was a momentous occasion when I could enter the adult area of the library and borrow whatever books I desired. As I recall, when one entered the library, the counter where one checked out books was straight ahead, the reference room, which was the Fireplace Room, was to the left, and the stacks on the first and second floors were just beyond the counter. The floors were gray stone.
Through junior high and high school and through my first two years of college at Jamestown Community College (1958-1960), I was a frequent visitor to the library—reading for pleasure and doing research for classes, especially when I had decided to become an English major and was required to read and write critical essays about literature. Many a Saturday afternoon found me ensconced at a desk piled with books and papers in a place that had become so friendly and familiar to me.
Fast forward to 2010 when I published my first book about Jamestown history, The Lost Neighborhood Collection. My son Steve suggested that I should have a book signing in Jamestown, and Jim Auria, who shares the cover credits of all three books I have published, thought that the Prendergast Library was a venue for such an event. Anne Plyler, then Director of Special Events, made the arrangements for the Saturday afternoon book signing on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, and a record eighty-five people attended, many of them from Derby Street which has become known as the Lost Neighborhood. I recall telling one of my friends that not in a million years would I have ever thought that I would be standing in what was the old reference room of the library, the spacious Fireplace Room that was once hung with beautiful art, talking about and signing my new book about my old neighborhood and Brooklyn Square. Jim Roselle, who shared my Italian heritage, came to my book signings at the library and invited me to be a “telephone” guest several times on his daily radio program and also “The Times of Your Life” to talk about my books. He was a gracious host and was very supportive of my efforts—and made sure I had a signed copy of his book The Best Times of My Life.
So everything has come full circle. Little did I know from that first trip to the Prendergast Library in 1947 when I acquired that most valuable card that is always in my wallet that the publication of my first book, and subsequent volumes, about Jamestown’s Lost Neighborhood and Brooklyn Square would be ushered in at a place full of books where mine now reside. It’s been a great journey.