Located in the Brighton Town Hall, with the Brighton Kiwanis Playground in back and an American Legion cannon and the Carol Heininger Wahl Memorial Children’s Literary Garden in front, the Brighton Memorial Library is the heart of Brighton.
As reported in the Brighton-Pittsford Post, after several months of construction work, on October 30th, the Brighton Memorial Library invited the public to celebrate its redesign. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held, refreshments were served and tours of the renovated facility were available.
The redesign provides a bright, fresh design; improved traffic flow; an enclosed Quiet Room; a new, relocated Information Center; redesigned computer areas and staff workspace; a self-serve coffee bar; and a full service document station with wireless print, scan and FAX capabilities.
At the ceremony, Town Supervisor William Moehle offered some brief comments. Bill described how the library is a rich community resource: art and financial classes, exhibits, book clubs, film viewings, talk, discussions and much more. Bill should know. As supervisor, Bill works up the stairs from the library. And — for those who don’t know — Bill actually lives in the closest house to the library, bought after he became supervisor. Bill has timed his commute at approximately seven minutes on foot.Also attending the event were New York State Senator. Joe Robach; Town Council member Jim Vogel and Brighton Town Court Judge Karen Morris — all of whom you met in Iconic America at the Brighton Little League Parade
At the ceremony, I met Michael Coughlin, page, Brighton Memorial Library. Meeting Michael inspired revisiting the Brighton Memorial Library of the late 70s and the early-to-mid 80s when my sister and I — and many of our friends such as Jackie Schaffer, Dean Tucker, Amy and Belinda Tucker, Stephen Shapiro, Alan Sun, and Bruce and Dave Kay — were also BML pages.
Michael is a senior at Penfield High School, expecting in the Fall to pursue the MCC/RIT two-plus-two track in computer science. From Mike I learned that the craft of shelving hasn’t changed that much in 35 years. Memorizing the dewey decimal system helps. There are multiple ways to sort and load the shelving cart: by topic, number, title, and sometimes by size. As book recognition increases, so does speed and accuracy. A veteran page can re-shelve a popular item with only the briefest glance at the front page.
Mike says he and the other pages are drawn to the job because they like books and the friendly library atmosphere. As pages re-shelve, they quickly discover books and audio-visual items of personal interest. Mike notices that at the end of shifts, pages usually check out one or two items. Mike is always on the lookout for the latest mystery.
Like the other pages, Michael is proud of the work he does. He likes helping patrons with book selections and computer problems. Mike thinks being a page is pretty cool first job. It’s a lot better than working in fast food and looks nice on a college application or resume. When in college, Mike plans to look into working at MCC’s Leroy library or the Wallace library at RIT.
In our day, pages were drawn to the library for reasons similar to Mike’s: for the love and books and the friendly atmosphere. Many (the Kramers, Tuckers and the Kays) liked the short commute. Like Supervisor Moehle, they could walk to work. Dean noticed one small perquisite. Social security taxes were not subtracted from the $2.65 hourly wage.
Decades later, some memories have dimmed, but not all. Dean remembers that in June 1980 page John Hellis wore the very first generation Sony Walkman TPS-L2. Dean also recalls being at the library when Reagan was shot in 1981. On election night 1980, I was working when different patrons came in over the course of the evening, reporting that Reagan was winning.
Dean also remembers that page Eileen belonged to several book circles and wrote novels in her spare time. Dean was impressed that Eileen even worked at the library as her other job at Kodak paid three times as much per hour.
Eileen was not the only literary minded page. After graduation from Reed College, Alan worked for a while at the Village Green bookstore, joined some book clubs, and, I believe, published a couple of short stories in a local magazine. Since his shelving days, Stephen Shapiro has published numerous articles and books. Actually, Stephen’s signed copy of his How to Read Marx’s Capital is owned and displayed by the Brighton Memorial Library.
Another recalled anecdote is disputed. Leslie claims that once she complained to Bruce that her shelving workload was onerous. Supposedly, Bruce responded that if he fell behind in his own schedule, he simply placed items randomly on the shelves. Today, Bruce expresses deep disappointment at Leslie’s seeming episode of implanted, false or created memories.When off duty as a page, in 1980/81, Bruce had the most colorful public career. First, as a last minute write-in candidate, Bruce was catapulted into the Brighton High School class presidency. Later, in another write-in election drive, Bruce was voted to be the Homecoming Prom Queen, for which Bruce dressed accordingly and with monarchial beauty. Yet, when the yearbook appeared with photos from Homecoming, Bruce’s image of himself on the parade float waving to his subjects was cropped — if not even doctored out. While some defended the decision of the yearbook staff to vanish Bruce from its history to be an act of good taste, I believe the spineless staff bowed unnecessarily to reactionary public opinion.
When reflecting upon the BML of the late 70s to mid 80s, I first recounted how the library’s collection seemed to be quite progressive and contained a fair number of what were considered controversial works. I looked more closely at three books: Abbie Hoffman’s Steal this Book (1971), Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (1973) and Norman Mailer’s Genius and Lust (1976).
As seen in the written statement adopted by the BML in 1976, the library had to carefully weigh the quality of selections, whether they presented multiple sides of controversial issues, how much they would be used by different members in the community and to what degree selections matched the character of nearby community libraries.
As discussed below, Steal this Book, Lesbian Nation and Genius and Lust all presented issues. Steal had been banned from the local Gates-Chili school library; Nation was not held in any other local collection; and some of the excerpts from Henry Miller’s novels in Lust had been banned in the United States until 1961.
But first there was 613.96.Both Dean and I remembered the amusement and curiosity aroused by the books categorized as 613.96, Human Sexuality. To its credit, the BML had — and has — a large and useful collection devoted to human sexuality and related interpersonal issues. The carefully chosen books provide a wealth of information for adolescents and adults negotiating sometimes difficult situations.
As adolescent pages, we were less appreciative of the educational value of 613.96 and similar categories. Instead, we noticed that upon closer inspection, some of the works had a certain lurid quality, one might even wrongly say, prurient.
To our discredit, we chuckled under our breath watching nervous patrons peruse those sections — which were in constant and high demand (some of the works were even, alas, stolen or never returned).
In addition, we sometimes glanced at the books ourselves. Overall, the pages of the BML were a tad on the socially backward side — mostly drawn from a high school known itself for its relative social backwardness (i.e. nice jewish boys). So we hoped some bookish knowledge drawn from 613.96 might compensate for our otherwise general lack of worldly knowledge.
Not surprisingly, “613.96” — and its connotations — continues to this day as a topic of discussion within librarian circles. One librarian asks for advice on what to do, When I catch someone browsing 613.96. 613.96 appears in “A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette” in a discussion of mildly ribald innuendos heard behind the scenes and stacks. And available on line is the steamy novel 613.96: Everyone in the Library Had Her Number by Dr. Mona Lott.Also, not so surprisingly, as demographics and methods for accessing digital vs. print information has changed, so too has the BML’s 613.96 selections. Senior sex and sex after sixty are in high demand. The print may be LARGE but the underlying principles addressed are timeless.
The most intriguing discovery was that Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (1973), a collection of her essays from the Village Voice, is still on the shelves of the Brighton Memorial Library.
Part memoir, part manifesto, Lesbian Nation became a signpost for the radical and revolutionary movement of lesbian separatism. Matching some of the rhetoric of black separatism, Johnston offered a full fledged critique of gender oppression and what was commonly called, compulsory heterosexuality.
Quite strikingly, apparently the BML was the only county library to purchase Lesbian Nation. A 4/90 notation says the book is the only copy in the system. The librarian at the Frederick Douglass branch looked more closely at the electronic record and it appears the Brighton copy is and always has been singular in the county.
Johnston’s lesbian feminist activism was well known. In 1970, Johnston had spoken at the University of Rochester.
In 1974, Lesbian Nation was discussed at the Genesee Co-op by the Gay Revolution of Women.
When first discovering Lesbian Nation on the shelves, I guessed its primary audience was young, intellectually precocious women, maybe high school seniors or college students — the first of whom checked out the book on June 4th, 1973 to be exact. For someone beginning to explore his or her gender identity or sexuality, Lesbian Nation was a wide open door into a brave new world where lesbianism offered political, personal and physical salvation or at least affirmation. This was heady stuff for someone to stumble upon in the aisles of a town public library indeed.
For a better sense of how Lesbian Nation and similar books were received and perceived, I turned to the page Jackie Shaffer (also pictured above). After graduating and moving on to Brown University, my sister Leslie had bequeathed her page title to Jackie.
Now an openly gay woman, during high school, Jackie says she suffered from compulsory heterosexuality (a term coined by one of Jackie’s heroes, Adrienne Rich). Jackie was basically oblivious to the sexual political issues raised by Johnston.
It was a few year later, in the stacks of the Rockefeller Library at Brown (where Jackie followed Leslie as did I a couple of years later), that Jackie discovered voices like Johnston — such as Rich and Marge Piercy — who seemed to speak directly to Jackie’s coming out experience.
Upon reflection, Jackie thinks it was pretty bold and progressive for the BML to carry Lesbian Nation — especially as no other branches seem to have — and to keep the book on its shelves ever since.
Jackie says she can now imagine a young library patron having found Johnston’s half-memoir/half manifesto quite revelatory in those days. Even if the reader didn’t accept Johnston’s radical separatist proposals, she might have felt that much less alone when exploring and choosing her own gender expression.
Jackie also thinks Leslie looks a lot better in her yearbook photo than she does. Perhaps she also thinks my ID photos look like a virginal boy who might have glimpsed at Norman Mailer’s Genius and Lust just down the shelf from Lesbian Nation.
Unlike the glaring obviousness of the books shelved on 613.96, Norman Mailer’s paperback Genius and Lust: A Journey through the major writings of Henry Miller (1976) was tucked away in the literature section and not so well known and circulated.
Mailer’s book includes excerpts from Miller’s major works and Mailer’s own tour de force explication, including long digressions on narcissism, surrealism and – surprise – sex.
Often considered to be pornographic, Miller’s sexually explicit prose was banned in the United States until 1961. By the time the Rochester Public Library loaned its first copy of Genius and Lust on Jan 17, 1977, Miller ceased being censored. Now considered mainstream enough, Genius and Lust received a favorable review in the Democrat and Chronicle in January, 1977.
Nonetheless, for this inquisitive library page – one almost wholly lacking in worldly experience – the excerpts from Henry Miller’s Sexus and Tropic of Capricorn were revelatory. At the same time, I imagine I must have not been the only adolescent boy who read Genius and Lust at the nearby couch, sheepishly and nervously glancing around for possible eyewitnesses.
Looking over some of those passages today – that read like well crafted Penthouse Forum letters – I can’t wonder if the library staff had fully vetted Mailer’s homage to a free spirit indeed.
Coincidentally, at just about the same time I discovered Miller, he died, in 1980 at the age of 88.
The Democrat and Chronicle editorial board praised Miller for his literary accomplishments and dismissed those who myopically only saw smut in Miller’s writings. For me, the assessment of the editorial board justified the BML’s bold decision to hold Miller’s works and my own couched perusal of his literary merit.
Today, only the Central Library still stocks Genius and Lust. Apparently, its circulation numbers are way down. On May 18th, 2016 the book was moved off the main shelves and into the stacks.
Looking back, I praise the BML for having bought Lesbian Nation in 1973 and then Genius and Lust in 1976. Both offer two vivid and opposing world views.
In Johnston’s case it meant unmasking the codes of heterosexuality to reveal a core of oppression. For Mailer, it’s an unabashed celebration of the phallus (real and literary) in which adding “Male” to the title “Genius and Lust” would have been entirely redundant.
Johnston herself disses small typed faced miller and mailer as part of the “americk[sic]an cult of virility and violence.” Johnston doesn’t think much of Miller’s dribble, citing a passage that might not even make the cut of a Penthouse Forum letter.
Today, Lesbian Nation and Genius and Lust may seem like dated books. But through various modifications, permutations and iterations, we can see displaced echoes of Johnston’s feminist critique in Hillary Clinton’s recent candidacy. And – with not so much modification – we can see strains of Miller and Mailer reincarnated in Trump’s presidency to be.
At least during the late the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Brighton Memorial Library held Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book (1971). Widely seen as exemplifying the hippie or yippie ethos of the 1960s, the book is a handbook on countercultural survival and how to thrive while still “dropping out.” The work was condemned for condoning illegal drug use. The book was also criticized for promoting other forms of criminality, just as using Malaysian and Jamiacan pennies, Peruvian centavio pieces, Danish ore pieces and Icelandic aural pieces as tokens in telephones, candy machines, stamp machines, photocopy machines, parking meters, and pay toilets.
The BML’s decision to carry STB was therefore not uncontroversial. In 1973, the Gates-Chili High School banned Hoffman’s drug and coin how-to. The banning prompted the Democrat and Chronicle’s Cliff Carpenter to defend Hoffman and also to pan Abbie who Carpenter calls tired and tiring.
Nothing personal Cliff, but with those glasses and that buzz kill attitude, I get the feeling you kinda missed out of the whole sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s.
Not surprising, Steal This Book often disappeared from the BML stacks. During the time period under discussion, only one person – who shall be nameless – was ever fired. Or more accurately, this person’s hours were reduced finally down to zero.
One time STB disappeared and then mysteriously reappeared on a table in the back area. Some speculated on a connection between the theft and recovery and the person whose hours were ultimately reduced to zero. This person has since become an attorney living in a southern state, often doing pro bono work for organizations that alleviate poverty and homelessness.
According to the electronic record, Central Library has two copies of STB, one the 1996 reprint and one the 1971 original. The librarian kindly retrieved from the stacks for us the 1996 version. Explaining that I wanted to scan the original for this article – not wanting some bogus knock off counterfeit reprint facsimile – I asked if she might further check the stacks.
The librarian returned empty handed. I chanced a comment: maybe somebody stole the book. Bless her non-ironic heart, she replied, not necessarily, and promptly checked one more unlikely shelf. No luck. (Hmm. A battered 1971 vintage illustrated by Robert Crumb goes for $35 on ebay and an extremely rare 1971 Pirate edition goes for $105.)
Finally, all those involved in turning back the pages of library history gained a greater appreciation for that enduring gem of Brighton: the Brighton Memorial Library.
On the same day as the ribbon cutting, the BML was holding one of its popular semi-annual book sales. This man was shopping in the plentiful literature section, buying books for his friend to display in her Dark Horse Café in the Village Gate.