For a long time, my favorite library was in the laundry room of my apartment building. It sprang up soon after my husband and I moved in, when someone left two cheap bookcases in the basement and a few cartons of books. Instead of putting them out with the trash, our super installed the shelves near the dryers with a cheery sign that said, “Help yourself and leave a few for your neighbors!”
At first, I didn’t pay attention. Then one day a boomer in the throes of downsizing dumped dozens of books by the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Egan, writers I’d always meant to read but never had the time for. So, I scooped up an armful and went back upstairs, arranging them in our bookcases before my husband got home.
Around the same time there was a wave of apartment sales in the building. The original shareholders who’d bought their apartments for $25,000 when the building went co-op in the 1980s were cashing in for $1 million, enough to pay for a move to Florida. Judging by the books they abandoned, they’d been serious readers and world travelers.
I snapped up volumes of Sophocles, Suetonius, Stendhal, and Shakespeare and fat coffee table catalogs, including one from an Egon Schiele exhibit in Tel Aviv that was written in German, a language I didn’t speak. But I thought it needed a good home.
Stan said I’d never read them all and disapproved of my habit, until the day I came back with a vintage set of Analog magazines, which temporarily silenced him because he loves science fiction. He even agreed to help me buy more shelves.
Still, I knew I had a problem. I was finding excuses to go to the basement several times a day. As soon as we finished a carton of milk or container of hummus, I’d rush to the recycling area, then swing by the laundry room to see if anything new had shown up overnight.
I was drawn to books that sparked memories, even if they were damaged, like a water-logged copy of Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense, which reminded me of high school English. Or a yellowing Robertson Davies paperback that conjured up visions of my mother, who was a fan. Or a 1930 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde whose illustrations of Hyde resembled one of my favorite singers, Neil Young.
When our artist friend Joan died, her eccentric collection of New Age instruction and children’s classics ended up in the basement. I took a fragile 1940 edition of The Wind in the Willows and a program for the Dalai Lama at the Beacon Theatre, where I discovered her sketches in the margins and notes on the six levels of suffering.
By then, I was sneaking books into our apartment early in the morning while Stan was asleep, asking myself if this was alcoholic behavior or simply the elaborate dodge of a self-employed writer trying to avoid work. I’d been around long enough to recognize the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder—and the example of the Collyer brothers loomed large as a warning to all New Yorkers with limited space and unlimited desire. But just having the books around, with their jumble of typefaces and colorful jackets, made me feel happy and even smarter, as if I’d somehow absorbed all the rivers of words and wisdom that lay between their covers.
Then, a few years ago, the quality of books plummeted. Day after day, all I saw was the same old dreary collection of investment guides and thrillers. I wondered if all the younger shareholders had switched to e-books. Or stopped reading altogether. Or if a certain breed of mid-century, Great Books-loving New Yorkers was simply becoming extinct.
But old habits die hard. One day, after recycling a stack of the New York Times, I stopped by the laundry room and spotted the somber black cover of Bearing the Cross, David Garrow’s prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Suddenly, I could see it on my shelf next to Jon Meacham’s doorstopper on Andrew Jackson and Megan Marshall’s epic portrait of the Peabody sisters. I closed my eyes, tried to calm down, and reminded myself that in all the years since I’d rescued those books, I hadn’t once cracked their spines.
Readers, I took it anyway.
Ann Levin is a writer and editor. Her book reviews and articles have been widely published, including by the Associated Press and in USA Today. She was formerly national news editor at the AP. Before that, she was a reporter for the San Diego Tribune and two newspapers in Texas. For the past few years, Ann has been writing personal essays and memoir. Two excerpts of the memoir have been published in the online journals Sensitive Skin and Southeast Review. She has also performed on stage with the New York-based writers’ group Read650 and contributed to their podcasts. She lives in New York City.