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Photograph courtesy of Moore County Historical Association

Universe of the Mind

By Bill Fields

The address is 180 South West Broad Street, but I never needed a map to find it.

People pay their water bills there now. For many years, though, the building with the arched windows set back from the street was the Southern Pines Public Library. It was designed by well-known architect Aymar Embury II, who also was responsible for the structures on either side, the post office and a doctor’s office, and other homes, businesses and schools in the Sandhills.

It is difficult to imagine childhood without Embury’s creation, constructed in the late 1930s and expanded a decade later. The exterior is appealing. The magic, however, was inside.

I love libraries, and that affection began among the books and periodicals in that cozy space when I was a boy. We had some reading materials at home, of course, but the library offered a vast universe beyond the World Books and fiction on our modest shelves. And while the Greensboro Daily News landed in our driveway each morning and a couple of magazines arrived in the mail each month, there was a bounty of publications at 180 S.W. Broad: National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, TIME, Popular Mechanics, Field & Stream and many others.

I was always excited to go inside, even though in those days, more so than now, a library was a land of whispers. One’s enthusiasm had to be tempered. But I’m not at all sure I was using my inside voice when, as a third-grader, I pleaded my case to Mrs. Kathleen Lambourne, the librarian, to check out my first grown-up book.

It was Willie Mays: My Life in and out of Baseball, by one of my baseball heroes as told to Charles Einstein. The cover featured “Willie Mays” in large script in the orange and black colors of the San Francisco Giants. The autobiography had 320 pages between its hard covers, a lot of words for a kid.

But Mrs. Lambourne was on my side. For the next couple of weeks, I found out a lot about Mays. Before long, I was checking out another adult title, Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, about the journalist-author’s brief turn as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. The English-born Mrs. Lambourne, who held the position in Southern Pines from 1955 through 1969, didn’t have a hard time figuring out that I loved sports.

The library was a regular destination in my relatively free-range youth in a safe small town, whether on foot or by bicycle. It would be a lie to say I went there more often than to the downtown park, a ball field or a golf course, but the library was an important aspect of growing up — a place that offered calm, rewarded curiosity, and fostered a love of words.

Growing older, the two public libraries in my larger town hundreds of miles north from where that serene spot existed are valued locations in my current life. Many things are available digitally, a great convenience, especially when traveling. Nothing beats perusing the shelves. I regularly roam the stacks of biography and memoir, my favorite genre, and always check the displays for new titles and staff recommendations.

Working from home for the last 10 years, I enjoy a change of scenery, and a day or two a week I’ll go to either my main or branch library and settle in at a table for a couple of hours or longer to write. Sometimes, words that are coming slowly at my residence come more easily in the library.

I’m typing this on the eve of a week-long stay in Southern Pines, where no doubt I will spend time in the town’s current library on West Connecticut Avenue, which opened in 1995. While enjoying that pleasant space, I’ll have memories of the hours spent blocks away, the library card with the tiny metal plate a ticket to a world beyond what I knew.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.