June 25, 2015
The Providence Athenaeum
Here, Where the World is Quiet
By Cissy Yu
Looking down from the mezzanine, you can almost see the entire spread of the Providence Athenaeum. Lit from above with the skylights, the main room looks like a dollhouse quaintly furnished – the librarian’s desk, the card catalog, the glass display case with green shades on the banker’s lamps. On a rainy day like this one, they would have lit the gaslights. In Poe’s day, they must have. Electricity didn’t grace these carrels until 1898.
I remember coming here for the first time, two years ago. The marble busts, the aged, bound books impressed me. On an impulse, I signed up for a student membership. Thirty-five dollars, an extravagant cost I thought, would guilt me into using my borrowing privileges frequently. An English major, I always felt I wasn’t reading enough. Now I had to.
To nobody’s surprise, I borrowed one or two books and then forgot about my membership. Fall passed, winter came. That spring, during the rush of midterm week and finals season, I finally started to come to the Athenaeum. It was only one block from Brown’s Rockefeller Library, but it became, for me, a place away from the noise and importance of Brown’s campus. I liked the hush of the Athenaeum’s upstairs mezzanine. I liked being crowded from all sides by dusty old books. I liked sitting on uncomfortable, three-legged chairs. I liked being politely turned out at five o’clock by the librarians, who closed up promptly on the hour every day even as “the Rock” – as the Brown library is referred to – kept its lights on twenty-four seven.
It’s inconvenient, maybe, but I like the Athenaeum. I know a few others who do as well, though we rarely speak (quiet, another ritual of the inscrutable librarians). I’ve passed people I recognize on the mezzanine, both of us crouching cat-legged to minimize the floorboard squeaks. They wait for me to descend the staircase, a rickety dark thing too narrow for two people to use, too steep for one person to climb elegantly. I’ve watched some people, members for years and decades maybe, let themselves into the rare books room, where a volume of Napoleon’s expeditions is kept in an Egyptian Cabinet. When you’ve been coming here for a lifetime, what does it feel like?
Once, in China, I visited an old inn that used to house caravan travelers on the Tea Horse Road. The building, about five hundred years old, had wooden floorboards, steep perilous staircases and dark empty rooms with old smells in them. Those walls, with their creaks and cricks, reminded me of the Athenaeum’s, but with a stranger, staler smell. They’d been unoccupied for decades at least. The last tea trader had passed there several generations ago.
Most old buildings don’t outlive their purposes. But certain permanent human needs – the need to eat, the need to sleep – have kept a few lucky places from going obsolete. The need to read books, maybe, will outlast even that one. I hope it does.
The Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit St., Providence, 401-421-6970, providenceathenaeum.org