Friday, August 5, 2011

St. Agnes Library

444 Amsterdam Avenue (between 81st and 82nd St.)

It was the early 90s and I was hitting my stride as a New Yorker. No longer a fledgling Midwest transplant, I was now an Upper West Sider with a local library to call my own. The St. Agnes branch had an old-fashioned and somehow familiar look. I felt at home.

I soon became a regular up on the third floor where I volunteered with the Center for Reading and Writing as a literacy tutor. The Center was and is one of those programs that make me wax poetic about New York City (a moment inevitably followed by an incident of shopping cart rage at Fairway or the sound of car alarms in the night.)  I taught absolute beginners and I met some unforgettable people: M, a charming former acrobat from Morocco; S, who was born and raised in South Carolina, but somehow never got beyond mastering words of two or three letters; and G, a charismatic construction worker from Jamaica with a Clark Gable smile, people I never would have met in my "regular" life.  We celebrated frequently with pot luck dinners and readings of our “published” work in anthologies.

Andrew Carnegie, NYPL benefactor

St. Agnes is one of 67 Carnegie libraries in Manhattan, the legacy of one of this country’s great robber barons and philanthropists—who believed it was his duty to help educate and improve the minds and morals of the working class. Originally located at West 91st Street and established as a parish library for St. Agnes Chapel, the library was notable for housing a small collection for the Library for the Blind.    After becoming the St. Agnes Free Library and moving several times, the branch opened in its present location as part of the New York Public Library (NYPL) system in 1901. 

From 2007 to 2010, the St. Agnes branch was closed for a major renovation.   The library is now accessible, with a ramp next to the front stairs and a slow, but functioning elevator.  The comfortable and appealing children’s room is located on the first floor (recently featured in an on-line article on the  Best Libraries for NYC Kids in  Time Out New York Kids.) 

The Children's Room at St. Agnes, first thing in the morning.

A well-stocked collection for adults is on the second level. Wireless internet access is available throughout. The St. Agnes Branch continues to house a branch of the Centers for Reading and Writing on the third floor. 

Also located on the third floor is a small auditorium where the library presents a variety of lectures, performances and readings. (For a full schedule of these offerings at St. Agnes and other NYPL branches, visit   On a recent Satuday afternoon, actress Prudence Holmes gave a lively performance of her one-woman show “Life & Loves of Willa Cather .” (more below) 

If you visit St. Agnes on a Wednesday or Saturday, you may be fortunate in finding that your visit coincides with one of the bi-monthly book sales held in the library basement. Organized by the Friends of the St. Agnes library, a group of dedicated volunteers, the sales feature more than 40,000 items organized by category and displayed in the cozy and well-lit space.  Most items sell for  between 50 cents and $2.00. While there are no book sales scheduled during August, the group is expected to resume holding sales—and accepting donations—in September. Check the library’s web site for details.

Quick Pick
Saint Agnes Library Book Sale
With just ten minutes to spare between appointments I raced downstairs to join the mini-throng of Upper West Siders eagerly searching for book bargains. My find of the day? A copy of The Pick Up by Nadine Gordimer,  the Nobel-prize-winning activist and  chronicler of life in apartheid South Africa. This story of a relationship—too complex to call a romance, but more than just a sexual alliance—is a quick and compelling read. Gordimer addresses class and race in post-apartheid  South Africa, and also explores questions of identity, the desperation of a Muslim immigrant trying to leave an undesirable (associated with terrorism) and unnamed African country.  I was also struck by her expert portrayal of the awkward  self-consciousness of the upper class characters as they try to behave democratically in a setting saturated with a history of bias, repression, violence and exclusion. 

Life in the Library
Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a library… While it may sound like the beginning of a charming piece of children’s fiction, the story is true. At one time, a number of branches of the New York public library had live-in custodians. St. Agnes was among them   The little girl who lived there in the 1960s was Sharon Washington (her father, George King Washington, was the custodian) has grown up to be an actress and author.  Sharon had free run of the children’s room, and invited her friends to birthday parties at the library, but keeping the furnace going meant shoveling coal at frequent intervals, hard work that sometimes became a family affair. Happily, for those (like me) who are enchanted by the idea of growing up in the library, Washington is currently working on a children’s book about her experiences.  There’s more on her story in this New York Times article.

Another Reason to Love the Library: Free Theater at Saint Agnes:
Lives and Loves of Willa Cather 
A one-woman show performed by Prudence Wright Holmes, directed by Nora Deveau Rosen
True to its title, this performance focused primarily on Cather’s personal life, particularly her love affairs with other women.  Actress Prudence Holmes touched only briefly on Cather’s novels with an allusion to the Bohemian girl who inspired My Antonia and a mention or two of family members whom she immortalized in her writing.   (While apparently there is no record of the author speaking or writing openly about her sexual orientation, Cather scholars agree that she was a lesbian.)  Ms. Holmes’ depiction of Ms. Cather and three of her lovers makes a convincing case—this is not your grandfather’s library entertainment.  Ms. Holmes alternately inhabited the characters of plain-spoken, passionate Willa; Louise Pound, the object of her young infatuation at college; Isabelle McClung, her graceful, remote and reserved friend and muse--who breaks Willa’s heart by marrying “a Jew”;  and the slavishly devoted Edith Lewis, who acted as Cather’s secretary. The two eventually became lovers and Lewis remained with Cather until her death. A clip of Holmes' performance is available on youtube.
If you’re interested in reading more about Cather, Ms. Lewis’s account of life with the writer may make interesting reading: Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record by Edith Lewis. For another take on the author’s life, see Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress. Both are available at the NYPL.


  1. I was about to tell you that I recently picked up a used, free copy of the same Nadine Gordimer book. I thought I'd finish reading the post before leaving that comment... and wow. I know Sharon Washington!

    We worked at Manhattan Theatre Club together - she was the assistant to the Managing Director. I sometimes see her in a film or TV show, and I always immediately recognize her voice.

    I thought it had to be a different person with the same name until I clicked on the link. The world is very small!

  2. That is quite amazing! I've not seen her act (that I know of), but I hope to see her published book in the not-too-distant future.

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