My search for quiet place to write in the city.
This story was published in “State of the Capitol,” a former weekly blog about urban life and culture from my year living in Hartford, Connecticut.
When I left my corporate job to write full-time, I was too worried about losing things like income or free coffee to think much about desks. That was before I got a good look at the prospect of working from home. Between the three seating options–bed, couch, or kitchen table–and having to share it with my telecommuting roommate (couch), I found my apartment wasn’t quite the idyllic writer’s studio I thought it would be. It looked even worse compared to my last daily writing space, a quiet cubicle whose high walls had made our company’s “no personal use of computers” rule somewhat hard to enforce. Shuffling around my messy, loud, occupied apartment that morning, I wondered if walking away from that desk might have been slightly irresponsible.
Hoping to find a comparable place to write, I packed up my notebooks and laptop and drove to the downtown branch of the Hartford Public Library. It was the first place that came to mind for a few reasons, mainly because it’s a library, and libraries are where people go when they want to read or write or study in a place of enforced silence. But that was hardly the most attractive reason. A public library, after all, is the tangible literary heart of its city, the hub of a government-sponsored cultural presence far more critical to the city’s health than its collection of books. Where else could an aspiring writer–could anyone–get a better sense of Hartford’s intellectual and civic values than at its public library? There was also the fact of its venerable location, which I hadn’t appreciated until I parked my car on Main Street. Strolling past the Wadsworth and Burr Mall on a brilliant winter morning, with a view to the west of the gilded state Capitol, it was hard to conceive a more exciting place for my future writing studio.
I pushed through the revolving doors in the library’s huge glass facade and entered a bright cafe, where dozens of round tables sat unoccupied. But a cafe table would not do. There was a very specific kind of desk that I had in mind, one that anybody who’s ever been to a library has probably seen before: a study desk. My reliable library go-to since college, no other piece of furniture grants privacy, sensory deprivation, or sense of “I’m busy, fuck off” quite like the three-sided enclosure of a study desk. Pushing the second pair of doors to enter the main lobby, it occurred to me that study desks are like cubicles for your face.
The inside of the library was as sleek as the exterior, decked in a bright, modern palette of white, chrome, and warm hardwood, and it was bustling with visitors. Past the circulation desk were two long tables of public computers, all in use, and then the familiar cascade of bookshelves. What I didn’t see from the lobby was any area of tables or chairs–no spacious central study hall common to most libraries–but across the room I spotted the rail of what appeared to be a balcony over an open-air gallery. Perhaps my desks were down there.
Looking out from the railing, I found that the open space was not simply a gallery but a massive four-story atrium that stretched from the basement to the lofted glass ceiling of the third floor. But there were no desks or tables below. Instead, the atrium floor was filled with armless chairs lined up in front of a collapsible stage, evidently waiting for some speech or presentation to begin, or perhaps to be put back in storage. This felt like a strange use of library space in the middle of a weekday, but the atrium itself was a nice touch. While the ground floor was packed, the floors above looked almost empty. I decided to begin my search up there.
On the second floor, two of the walls along the atrium balcony were taken by administrative offices, and a third held only the elevator doors. The last wall, however, was a short row of empty study rooms behind glass, with one open room at the end of the hall. Turning the corner, I found this room occupied by only two things: chairs, and silent middle-aged men sitting in them. They all turned and stared when I appeared in the door—the room had been completely silent, and none of the men were reading anything.
The other levels were not much better. The third floor, which holds the downtown branch’s popular ArtWalk, was otherwise nothing but offices. I dropped down to the crowded ground level to search among the stacks, but the only seating area was small and entirely occupied. I descended to the basement. Down by the stage, the areas around the atrium were almost entirely filled with shelves, which sparked the hope of finding a desk–or even a chair, since it’d come to that–hidden somewhere in a corner. I did two laps around the basement for good measure, but there was nothing. Apart from the conference setup in the atrium, the only place to sit in the basement was far in the back, where metal chairs were set up around a couple of collapsible tables. A man was sitting at one of the tables alone, and he explained their purpose as I came around a second time.
“You’re welcome to sit here,” he said cheerfully, “if you don’t mind the public speaking class! It’s in twenty minutes.”
The dream of a downtown writing studio took its final breath at the circulation desk. I asked the librarian about the three empty study rooms on the second floor–would I be able to reserve one for several hours at at time? “No, actually,” he said, “those are booked weeks in advance.”
I found out later that the study rooms I was talking about, on the second floor, are actually not booked weeks in advance–the librarian had been talking about a large private classroom on the first floor, thinking I’d wanted it all to myself. (It sounds like a great place for a public-speaking class.) But given the misunderstanding, I stepped again through the revolving doors into the cafe, taking a hightop by the window. It wasn’t a desk, but it would have to do.
As I watched the movement of the city on Main Street, I tried to remain positive about wasting 45 minutes just trying to find a place to sit. It certainly didn’t bode well for my writing career, but mainly I felt the disappointment of finding so few options in my city’s flagship library for someone to sit down and write–or, for that matter, to read while taking notes, or study, or do any of the things that people seek out desks and tables and libraries for. Yes, the library was a clean, beautiful, pleasant place to spend the morning; yes, it clearly allows for a variety of uses, all of which–from public speaking to art exhibitions to shelter for the homeless–are crucial to the health of the city. Those are intellectual and cultural values worth celebrating. But it would have been nice, before losing the cafe wifi for the tenth time, if the Hartford Public Library offered a quiet space to engage my own intellectual and civic values. Or yours.