The little neighborhood library that could -- and still does

Jacques Kelly

November 14, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

For the past 50 years, the people who run the Enoch Pratt Free Library have been threatening to close the little neighborhood branch where I first borrowed a picture book.

Pratt Branch No. 6, in the 2500 block of St. Paul St., has been the object of institutional scorn for many a year, but yesterday it escaped again when it was not included on the list of eight city library branches to be closed. Small and old-fashioned, 95 years old this week, No. 6 is lightly patronized and it costs plenty to staff and stock. In 1896, when the branch opened, it was on the outskirts of the city. Today, the area is congested and not as convenient as it might be. All this is true,except. . .

I'm a big fan of this epitome of the delightful little branch library tucked away in a neighborhood. It's also just down the street from the Margaret Brent Elementary School, a major source of branch patronage.

Most every reading Baltimorean grew up with a Pratt branch affiliation, much like the relationship with the local movie theater, neighborhood druggist, food store chain or downtown department store. It's been heartening that Pratt branches have survived the Hochschild Kohn stores,Ambassador movie theaters and Acmes of Baltimore.

One day this week, I dropped into my old branch and found that the place really hadn't changed too much from a day in 1954 or 1955 when my mother introduced me -- and whichever little Kelly siblings tagged along in the brown wicker baby carriage. I'm sure she stepped on that buggy's brake and just parked it out on the St. Paul Street sidewalk.

It's been 35 years since I first passed through the old branch's swinging doors. In a city that has gone through so many changes, it's reassuring to have this little Victorian reading room still around. The bright tiles in the vestibule; the librarian's golden oak desk; the little closet where the back issues of the magazines are kept; the murals of Charles Village scenes. The round tables with children reading and doing homework.

This is a library unashamed that it's not a gathering spot for the computer generation. This is a book place, where there are copies of the great British plays and harlequin romances. There HTC are biographies of the Duchess of Windsor and Michael Jackson. You can pick up a Fortune or an Evening Sun.

It's also warm, clean and shipshape. For those students who want a quiet place to do their homework, this place is a lot more sane than a household with a television set going 20 hours a day.

Within the branch, I spotted no movie videos, compact discs or cassette tapes. If it's old-fashioned and not chock full of publishers' expensive, up-to-date titles, so what? Isn't that the basic character of Baltimore?

What I did see were avid readers,like the retired man who was glued to the international affairs section of the New York Times.

There also was 7-year-old David Howard, a second-grader at Margaret Brent School, who lives in the 300 block of E. 23rd St. He'd picked out seven books (his favorite was "Goldilocks and the Three Bears)." His mother was to pick him up at closing time.

Without being asked, he broke into a smile and blurted out, "I love to read."

With that, the librarian came up to him with an oversize rubber band and got his bundle of books ready to make their trip through the swinging doors.

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