"Plato's Republic" is the sixth in a series of exclusive, original essays by Marilyn Sachs, the author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Credited with helping launch the trend of realistic fiction for young readers with her first book, 1964's Amy Moves In, Marilyn is considered a literary treasure. Born in New York City in 1927, she grew up in an apartment on Jennings Street in the east Bronx, and her own childhood provides the framework for many of her stories. When she came to Red Room to let us know she was working on her memoirs, we jumped at the chance to work with her and publish them here first. These essays recall a time and place far removed from our own; however, the emotions Marilyn evokes are timeless.
Marilyn says, "I look forward to sharing some memories with my fellow writers and readers. Please let me hear from you even if you want to disagree. And thank you to the staff at Red Room for their encouragement, help and advice."
In the early fifties, when I worked as a children's librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library, I was assigned to a variety of branches: the Main Library, Brownsville Children's, Flatlands, Montague, the Bookmobile, and Tompkins Park.
You can see it in the photo (taken by Bernard Jaffe)—a small brick building in the middle of a tiny park. Sadly, it has been taken down since then.
Tompkins Park was in the middle of Bedford Stuyvesant, a poor, mostly black, working-class neighborhood. In those days, I preferred working with poor kids. It made me feel as if I could spread the word to those who didn't always hear it. And the word was Books.
I knew how important books were, and wanted to spread the word. Many of the kids who came to Tompkins Park were not good readers, and a number weren't even readers. I tried to make the children's room an inviting place–if they didn't read, they could do puzzles or play board games–quietly. They could sit in my lap, and let me read to them, or, looking again at the photo, they could join me outside on warm, sunny days, and listen to stories.
The children came. On cold winter days, it was a free, warm place where they were always welcome. I enlisted the help of four or five kids from the local junior high school (now called middle school) who read stories to those who wanted to listen, or helped others with their homework.
The staff got along fine–none of the usual disagreements that characterized some libraries. Miss Borkowski was the branch librarian, always pleasant and never bossy. The second librarian, Miss Clark, served the adults at the information desk, and gave me a recipe for a lemon pie that I still use today. The third librarian was me. We also had a clerk–let's call her Ida because she was very good-looking, and resembled the actress Ida Lupino. She was also clever, as you will see by the following story.
Generally, I occupied the children's room, and worked with the children. Miss Clark sat at the information desk, or walked around the adult section, and offered her services to any adult who needed help. Miss Borkowski sat with Ida at the check out desk, and was also available to adults who had questions. Often there weren't that many adults, and Miss Borkowski used her talents checking in the new books.
There was one phone in the library, located at the information desk. Patrons (that was the word for people who used the library, took out books, had questions about titles, hours or directions) were welcome to call.
From time to time, especially if one of the other librarians was absent from the branch, I would have to move to the information desk and serve the adults. In general I enjoyed the change. I could talk adult books with my patrons, find titles on the shelves, and help with the card catalog. In the early fifties there were no computers at Tompkins Park, or at any other branches. As a matter of fact, there were no computers anywhere.
Phone calls were fairly frequent. Did we have a certain title? Would we hold it for a particular patron? What time did the library close? Were we open on Saturdays?
One day, the phone rang when I was stationed at the information desk.
"Tompkins Park Library," I answered.
"Would you tell me please," a man's voice asked, "if you have Plato's Republic?"
"I'm sure we do," I answered. "Do you want me to see if it's in?
"Why, yes please," said the man. "I really need it."
I checked the shelf, and found it.
"We have the book," I told him. "Do you want us to hold it for you?"
"I'm not sure," He said. "Could I ask you to check page 27?"
I flipped through the book, and found page 27.
"Yes, page 27 is here,"
"Well, could I ask you to read the first paragraph out loud to me."
"I'm sorry, but we don't usually ... " I began
"I need to make sure it's the correct translation."
"Oh," I said, " in that case ..." And I proceeded to read it out loud. It was a long paragraph, and took up most of the page. When I was finished, I began to ask him if he wanted the book held for him, when he said in a breathless whisper, "Keep reading. sister."
I hung up, and hurried over to Miss Borkowski.
"I need to talk to you," I said in a low voice. She smiled, and looked up from her books. "Any problem?" she asked.
"A man just called, and he asked for Plato's Republic, and ..."
Miss Borkowski held up her hand. "He keeps doing that," she said. "I don't know what to do about him. He's upset Miss Clark, and from time to time, he's asked other librarians who were substituting here,"
Ida was listening to the conversation. In those days, clerks were called by their first names while librarians were Miss, Mrs., or sometimes Mr.
"He's never asked me," she said.
"Because you never sit at the information desk, dear," Miss Borkowski said kindly.
"Well, I'll tell you what," Ida said, "next time he calls. Just signal to me, and I'll handle it. Let Miss Clark know and Marilyn ... I mean, Mrs. Sachs, and any other librarian who substitutes here, to just motion to me."
Miss Borkowski sighed. "If you really insist, Ida, but I don't know what you can do to stop him."
"Just let me try," Ida insisted.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, Miss Clark frantically waved at Ida from the information desk. Ida moved quickly over, and the rest of us stood there listening.
"Uh huh," we heard her say, "you want Plato's Republic. Well, let me tell you, Mister, we're a small branch and we have a small staff. Why don't you call a larger library with more staff?"
After she hung up, Ida smiled at all of us. "He won't bother us anymore. He was perfectly polite. He asked me for the phone numbers of the bigger branches, and I gave him the Main, Bedford, Eastern Parkway ..."
"But do you think that was ... well, right?" Miss Borkowski asked weakly.
Ida was clever. He never bothered us again, although Miss Borkowski reported that Bedford and Eastern Parkway had complained at a branch librarians meeting that some terrible man had been harassing their staffs. Miss Borkowski, of course, never said a word.
Sadly, one unfortunate outcome of this whole incident continues to haunt me. Some weeks after Ida had handled the matter, a young man asked for a book at the information desk.
"WHAT!" screamed Miss Clark, and motioned for the rest of us. Tompkins Park was a very small branch so all of us quickly converged behind her.
"He wants Plato's Republic," said Miss Clark.
"What's your name?" Ida demanded.
"Do you have I.D.?" I snarled.
Miss Borkowski scowled. "Why do you want it?"
"Well ... well..." said the young man, backing away from the information desk, and the four angry, terrifying-looking female faces glaring at him. "I need it for school. I ... I go to Brooklyn College, and I'm taking a philosophy course ... but I can go to another library."
He had to show his student I.D., his library card, and even the syllabus of his course before he was permitted to take out Plato's Republic.
He never came back. Perhaps he returned the book at another branch, or asked a fellow student to return it to Tompkins Park. What haunts me after all these years is that nobody explained to him why he should have been treated as a criminal because he wanted to read a great book like Plato's Republic.