From The Millions:
The Hornsey Public Library sits off a gravel-paved sidewalk on a residential street in an outer borough of London. There are many beautiful libraries in London, but the Hornsey Public Library was built at a time in the 20th century when London did not require its libraries to be beautiful. The concrete and brick exterior has many right angles and determinedly unadorned surfaces. A marble plaque near the entrance says it was dedicated in 1965 by Princess Alexandra, a cousin of the queen and one of the corps of expendable royals dispatched to things like suburban library dedications.
The one very beautiful thing in the Hornsey Public Library is a large glass etching of an old map of the Parish of Hornsey on the floor-to-ceiling window near the north stairs. It is interesting to look at but feels hidden and out of place, as though added at the last minute when someone realized that the library should have at least one beautiful thing. The library’s interior is tidy and spacious. It has high ceilings lit by fluorescent tubes behind plastic panels. The walls are mint green and the floor is covered in that rough short-nap carpet that comes in squares. It feels dated but in a timeless way, as if there’s been no point in its existence when it wasn’t comfortably out of style.
The neighborhood that shelters the Hornsey Public Library used to be called the Parish of Hornsey. Now it’s called Crouch End. Crouch End is in the middle-outer rings of London, between the northern forks of the Piccadilly and Northern lines. It has a cobbler, a fishmonger, a poulterer, and several fruiterers. It has many strollers that frequently obstruct crosswalks and sidewalks. It supports multiple patisseries and health food stores.
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Crouch End has council housing, which is what the English call public housing, and it also has houses that are quite posh, which is what the English call things that cost a lot of money. English towns are rarely like American towns, where an address or intersection stage-whispers its inhabitants’ socioeconomic status. In neighborhoods like Crouch End the housing stock is jumbled together, with million-pound homes sharing a block or even a wall with crumbling rental conversions. Even with this democracy of address, class anxieties rumble.
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The inside of the Hornsey Public Library feels different from the neighborhood outside. In Crouch End there are many people who like the idea of community, but who also have the money to pay for nicer things than those available in communal facilities. They prefer to buy their books at an independent bookshop, but often, guiltily, on Amazon. Inside the library there are people who do not have the money to pay for nicer things and so need to use communal facilities. Not all of the people in this second category like the idea of community. The percentage of people who can be seen muttering softly to themselves is also greater inside the library than outside of it.
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The Hornsey Public Library does not possess a staggering number of books. On the ground floor, past the checkout desk, is a long wall of fiction. History hides under the stairs; gardening and cookery hug the back wall; and economics, sociology, and assorted non-fiction line a few shelves upstairs. It is an eclectic mix of bestselling and obscure authors, new titles and old. If there is a special book you have in mind—a lesser-known short story collection by a famous novelist, for example, or a book on Burma that you saw in an airport bookshop—chances are the library does not have that book. If you are not committed to a particular title and have the time and inclination to browse the shelves looking for something interesting to read, then certainly you will find at least one book that fits your personal criteria of readability.
Books are only a small part of the library’s mandate. When the council elected to spare its libraries from cuts, it announced that they would be redeveloped as “community hubs.” Among the groups using the library’s facilities for regular open meetings are stroke survivors, cancer survivors, seniors, dads, knitters, aspiring songwriters, Pilates enthusiasts, and philosophy buffs. There is an art gallery and a café with tea, coffee, and a refrigerated case with a small selection of juice and boxed sandwiches. No one ever eats the sandwiches.
Link to the rest at The Millions