By Alex Green, Guest Columnist
If Looney Tunes taught me anything about geography, it was the importance of keeping my head above ground in case a wrong left turn at Albuquerque led to a detour to the absolute end of the earth, Timbuktu. For years that name was simply a silly sounding synonym for a place as far away as the imagination could lead. But ultimately an obsession with African history brought my finger down upon a map, and at long last I could identify Timbuktu as the 900 year old spiritual and commercial capital of the West African nation of Mali.
Around that time I read an article which cast light upon a long forgotten grail-like repository of manuscripts in Timbuktu. This ancient library, neglected and sand swept, was literally losing its vast collection of literary works piecemeal to the wind. Contained within it were the records of Sahara-crossing traders and the tales of the griots, the singing historian-poets of West Africa.
The sense of loss was palpable in the article, and yet it was equally astonishing to me that something so ancient could have survived at all. Before reading that piece, my experience with libraries suggested that an invisible clause somewhere rendered them unusable, theoretical institutions which could not justify their own existence to the community at large. It amuses me to reflect now as an independent bookseller that during my childhood, Barnes & Noble was the closest thing we had to a library and we treated it as such.
My childhood town in the San Francisco Bay Area evolved in a few short decades from a verdant valley of walnut orchards into an axis of technology-based wealth. The downtown sported a Tiffany's alongside other retail establishments found only in the most exclusive American communities. Unfortunately, it seemed too few people had enough extra money to vote for a quarter cent tax increase, and the result was branch libraries that struggled to stay open more than the soda stand at the local baseball fields.
When I moved to Waltham and drove past the public library, I asked my friends if it was City Hall. They laughed, but I was serious. I had never seen an institution quite like it outside of major cities. Now, as the owner of an independent bookstore, I consistently send customers to the library for the many services it offers and find that the symbiosis it creates with retail literary establishments is one of the keys to my survival.
This year a group of citizens have combined forces with library director Kate Tranquada to plan various projects for National Library Week. Despite being taxpayer subsidized, libraries need support just like independent bookstores. Without a library we lose access to our history, like the Waltham Room, which houses the archives of our city. Without a library we could never know fascinating tidbits, like the fact that the last photograph of Abraham Lincoln was taken by a Waltham photographer. Without a library, a city cannot support a bookstore. Without a library, a community's conscience is set alone atop a dune, its contents exposed to the elements. With a month to go, take an afternoon, and whether you live in Waltham or not, walk down to your local library. Keep your head up, avoid that left turn at Albuquerque and I guarantee there will be no need for that detour to Timbuktu.
Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books, an independent bookstore on Moody Street in Waltham. This month Back Pages will become a publisher with the release of Howard Zinn's "State of the Union 2009: Notes for a New Administration". They can be found online at www.backpagesbooks.com.