The book bank
October 15, 2010
When I was young, Pitkin County Library was housed in the Wheeler Opera House. Because my mother volunteered as a librarian, I spent many winter hours exploring its stacks and storage spaces, and even perused a few of its books.
The library had not only located in an available and affordable space, it had found the best space for community gatherings. The old Wheeler bank was on the busiest downtown corner (present location of Bentley’s), right next to Aspen’s most frequented business, Beck and Bishop grocery store. If you parked on Mill Street, you were only one block from the post office and drug store, you were across the street from Aspen Supply, which carried anything else you needed, and you were a stone’s throw from doctors’ offices. Standing on the stately marble floor, elevated a half-story above the street, anyone inside the library could see everyone else’s comings and goings through the four large windows that provided a downtown lookout.
The library’s street-side walls were lined with radiators that filled the high-ceilinged room with welcome steam heat. In the library’s “hush” environment, the creaking and groaning of the radiators marked time, helping readers to pace their reading. Boys who filled their boots to the brim with snow could shed them near the door, and then warm their feet while drying their socks by walking on the warm marble floor.
Flickering fluorescent light bulbs, barely alive, provided enough illumination to locate books in the stacks, but reading was made possible only by moving near the windows. Early morning reading was best on the Hyman Avenue side of the room.
On warm days children took library breaks outside, playing on the S-curved sandstone sides of the entry steps. The steps’ shape fitted the backs of those under 10, while the sandstone, releasing deposits of sunshine, soothed cold muscles.
The library’s collection, mostly from donations, spanned Aspen’s history. Many titles had been bound and re-bound, each with the code of the Dewey Decimal system handwritten in white ink on the spines. Many of the books would have been considered “rare” on the sole merit of their publication dates, but few of those left the shelves.
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To my young mind the most preposterous process was the removal of little-used titles, to store them in the bank’s safe, home of the least-valued books. That darkest and dustiest space in the library was lit with one tiny, bare bulb that could be turned on with a pull chain – if you could find it in the dark.
Librarians used the old bank manager’s office, separated from the main room by a glass wall, to repair tattered books and to prepare new books for circulation.
As a barely-able-to-read boy, my favorite section was just to the left as you entered the double main door. Bank customers had prepared their deposits nearby, where a wall-mounted desk, high off the floor for a short boy, was anchored to a brass foot rail that my short legs couldn’t reach. The library stationed a tall stool there, where I perched, swiveling or reading. However, the location and stool were not the main attraction for me. I was captivated by the oversized books, the ones with the most pictures, that were shelved there. Those books revealed prehistoric geologic scenes, the 10 wonders of the world and illustrations of the planets.
Those who feel nostalgic for small-town Aspen recognize that Jerome Wheeler chose the best location for his own bank, and that it currently makes an excellent bar location. Nevertheless, for a brief time, it was also the finest location for a library.