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Richland County Library, Sumter & Washington Streets: 14 February 1993   17 comments

Posted at 10:50 pm in government,historic,landmark

When I was small, the book-mobile would pull up in our driveway every week, and all the neighboorhood kids would come to our house to check out books. After the book-mobile stopped making the rounds, we would usually go to the Cooper Branch Library on Trenholm Road, which was on the way to and from my mother's usual grocery and shopping runs.

Now the number of books in the Cooper Branch was quite impressive to me as a kid, but it really wasn't all that big a place, and the stock didn't turn over that rapidly. Though I enjoyed reading the same books over and over (I'm sure I read Alfred Morgan's The Boy's First Book of Radio and Electronics upwards of 50 times, with the same going for Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet and Alan Nourse's Raider's From The Rings), it was always a thrill to go downtown to find books I'd never seen before.

As you can see from the pictures above, the building that was the downtown main library is gone now, and a church is using the lot. (You can see the original building here). The way I recall it, parking was very much at a premium at the Sumter & Washington site, and a visit would usually involve a metered space. There were two public entrances to the building. If you entered the main entrance, you would be facing the main check-out desk. To your right, would be an area devoted to periodicals taking up the whole side of the first floor. To your left and behind you would be a seperate "reference room" filled with books which did not circulate. Straight to your left would be first the card catalog hive and then the stairs to the upper floors. To your left and in front of you would be the non-fiction area (though though this wasn't absolutely strict as Dewey Decimal code 808.3 did include Science Fiction anthologies).

If you came in through the second public door, you would encounter a flight of stairs which would take you directly to the children's section which was either on the second or third floors. The fact that there was unsecured street access to the children's section seems a bit odd from a 2008 perspective, but those were different times.

Again, I get a bit confused between the second and third floors, but one of them was entirely devoted to fiction. Sometime in the 1970s, the library decided on a very important (to me) innovation: they would organize the fiction section by genres. This meant that romance, mystery and westerns were all broken out into separate sections, which I did not care about and it meant science-fiction was broken out into a separate section which I did care about, a lot. Remember that these were pre-Internet days. I was the only one I knew who read science-fiction. There was no e-mail list for science-fiction. There were no web-forums for science-fiction. As far as I know, there wasn't even a science-fiction book club in town. I knew some names: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Alan Nourse and that was it. Whereas before it wasn't practical to check every book in the fiction section on the chance that it might be SF, now I could check every book on the SF shelves: Nirvana!

When I became interested in rock music in the mid 70s, the library was also the place where I could check out (and tape to casette..) rock & pop LPs, and peruse music magazines like Billboard and Rolling Stone that I would never be able to afford myself.

Sitting in the periodical section happily turning pages, I did start to notice some of the pathologies beginning to affect the downtown library though. I think I first noticed that several guys sitting in the magazine section seemed to have fallen asleep. I didn't make the right connections at first -- my father fell asleep reading all the time, and there had certainly been classes and study sessions where I was very close myself. When I noticed the rank smell, I finally realized that these were homeless people, something I hadn't encountered before. It's a difficult problem to address at all, and the library was ill-suited to do anything. It was a public space after all. I certainly don't know what the answer was, but I do know it hurt the library. I recall friends who were reluctant to go down there, and parents reluctant to take their kids.

None of that affected the need to find someplace for all the books it took to seve a growing population and a growing library system however, and after a process that considered several alternatives, we finally ended up with the new site at 1431 Assembly Street. My memory is that the old library sat vacant for several years, then I sort of lost track of it. The first I knew that it was slated for demolition was when I drove by and there was no trace of it left.

I like the new library (and they seem to have a handle on the homless issue), but the thrill is gone. Now that I have a job, if I really want a book, I can just buy it, and with Amazon and Google, I'm never surprised by what is on the shelves (heck, I get email alerts months before a new book by a favorite author is due!). Still, there's probably some 13 year old making his first trip downtown every day and there's still 8 copies of Space Cadet on the shelves..

Written by ted on September 19th, 2008

17 Responses to 'Richland County Library, Sumter & Washington Streets: 14 February 1993'

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  1. So glad you brought this up, and after reading your post I know we'd be friends.

    When I was about 11 or 12, on a hot summer day with nothing to do, I would often beg a few bucks from my mom and go downtown. By myself. And no one thought it was scary or that my mother was a bad parent. Columbia was much more of a small town then, and everywhere I went it seemed like I'd run into someone who knew my parents and would have called them if I was doing something wrong or was in trouble.

    Typically, I would:

    - ride the Harrison Road bus into town (two tokens for 15 cents, and the driver, Mr. Daniels, knew my family due to us all riding so much. He'd even stop closer to our house where there was no bus stop. If I got really lucky he would have one of the two air-condioned buses SCE&G had), then

    -go to the library and see everything there, checking out a load of Asimov -- by writing my name on the card and having the librarian stamp the due date with a rubber stamp, then

    -go swimming at the YMCA on Sumter St., or at the USC natatorium that's in the same building as Longstreet Theater (the pool is still there -- it's empty and used for storage), then

    -eat a grilled cheese at McGregor's Drug Store (1300 block of Main St.) soda fountain, made especially for me by a black man with a white paper hat named Abraham who must have been 100 years old. He put just a little mayo in it. Yum! And a chocolate fountain Coke to go with it. Then,

    -I'd go hang out a little at the State House grounds, feeding Cromer's Roasted Peanuts to the squirrels. There was always an old man there selling them for 10 cents. The squirels would sit on the bench with you and eat from your hand.

    -If I still had some more day to kill I'd see a movie on Main St. for about 50 cents. One day I happened on to "Planet of the Apes" at the Miracle, which made a huge impression on me and is a lifelong favorite.

    -every once in a while I'd drop in and see my dad at his office in the Siebels Bldg. on the corner of Lady & Bull Sts.

    Wow, what a flood of memories. Sorry to be so long winded.

    Dennis

    20 Sep 08 at 7:51 pm

  2. Sounds like great times! I think I missed that era by a few years (though I did have Red Cross swimming lessons at the Longstreet).

    ted

    20 Sep 08 at 9:57 pm

  3. One more thing then I promise I will shut up -- that cool metal sign that's a map of Richland County from the old library is on the wall in the basement of the new library, in the north east corner of the building.

    Dennis

    21 Sep 08 at 5:56 am

  4. They tore down the building so the Six Flags Over Jesus church can have yet another building and parking lot. Love thy neighbor, but don't let him park in your parking lot if he wants to go to the Y.
    Sorry, I am fed up with the church bloat around town.

    ChiefDanGeorge

    21 Sep 08 at 6:04 am

  5. I remember going to this library and being absolutely amazed that even though it was only several stories tall, it had four or so stories underground, like Thomas Cooper, or am I confusing it with Thomas Cooper? Maybe I don't remember so well, afterall!

    Jonathan

    22 Sep 08 at 12:38 pm

  6. We lived out in the country (Lexington Co.) so I never made it down to the library as a kid even tho I was a voracious reader!! I did visit a friend who worked there once - must have been toward the end of the life of the building... I was actually a little bit frightened to be in the building! Couldn't image how my friend felt safe there... the walls, ceilings & floors all seemed to sag. Overall was a very depressing place to me. It was very crowded & yep, smelled funny - altho any place with lots of old books is going to smell funny! :-)
    I didn't like the location of the new library, but I do appreciate everything else about it!!

    & Chief Dan - I agree with you! :-(

    Lisa B.

    22 Sep 08 at 12:40 pm

  7. In the tradition of overcrowded libraries all over the country, they had subdivided floors to create more space for book shelves. So, for example, the second floor became two floors, 2a and 2B, with barely 7 feet of ceiling height. It made it dark and claustrophobic, especially when done to the basement. It also makes for very confusing stairwells and elevators. Ever lost your car in a parking garage?

    The same thing was done to McKissick on the USC horseshoe, back when it was a working library instead of a museum.

    I always liked that smell -- it's the smell of books!

    FirstDennis

    22 Sep 08 at 1:20 pm

  8. I worked at the library. I was back in cataloging. Mrs. King was the head librarian and she was a crazy woman. When they tore it down, my brother snatched a brick for me and put a picture of the building on the brick.
    Dennis--I don't remember you running around by yourself downtown! Did we live in the same house?

    Debbie

    11 Feb 09 at 7:32 pm

  9. Dennis

    What year was the description of your trip downtown? Abraham used to work for my Father at Central Drug before he closed it in 1966. Abraham was a colorful drunk but a steady worker. As a small kid, I remember peering out the rear door to see him and his friends smoking funny cigarettes.

    joel

    9 Feb 10 at 9:48 pm

  10. joel -- I'd say 1967 or '68

    Dennis

    10 Feb 10 at 7:57 am

  11. Ah, yes... The old library. I remember it mostly for the sleeping homeless men in the front seating area and I remember how claustrophobic it was as well. I'd forgotten that they must have had card catalogues there. How barbaric! I had the priveledge of working at the new library. There still were homeless, but we had security folks there to make sure there was no trouble. I don't know why they couldn't manage this at the old library. Maybe the local homeless aid facilities are better equipped now than they used to be, because I don't remember the guys we'd serve smelling bad.

    Becky

    21 Sep 10 at 2:14 pm

  12. tonkatoy

    6 May 11 at 11:45 am

  13. Oh yeah, that's it! Really not that attractive a building, but I had plenty of good times browsing the stacks.

    ted

    6 May 11 at 11:52 am

  14. It *looks* like that's before they put three floors where two used to be.

    tonkatoy

    6 May 11 at 12:08 pm

  15. The new library has a no dozing policy and a security guard to enforce it. The homeless are still plenty there but usually have newspapers or a magazine or two to make it appear like they are there on business. The disheveled appearances and odor usually give them away.

    joelc

    1 Nov 11 at 12:23 pm

  16. I remember the old Sumter St. Location... And yes, it was set-up just the way Ted mentioned. I was in elementary school in the 80's, and my father would take me there all the time. I loved the children's section! I'm 34 now, and had the original kelly-green card for the longest... Then, a few years ago, I was cohearsed into getting a "Where the Wild Things Are" card.

    I remember when the new library opened... I think it was around '91ish. I was in middle school and played the cello... Our orchestra was invited to play during a grand opening or dedication ceremony.

    Dee Dee

    27 Jan 13 at 2:48 am

  17. My family moved here in 1971 and I was always there looking for new books to read. In those days, I discovered new titles by my favorite authors by seeing them in the stacks. No internet access to this type of information. I do remember that spooky back entrance as well!

    Becky

    27 Jan 13 at 11:51 am

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