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The Cleveland Business

Cleveland, Ohio, illustrated skyline, in blue gradients

“People ask me, ‘Aren’t you worried about the future, being in the book business?’ I always say: ‘We’re not in the book business. We’re in the Cleveland business.'” —Felton Thomas, Director of Cleveland Public Library

When I told my friends I was moving to from Chicago to Cleveland, each and every single one of them said, “You’re crazy! You’ll hate it there!”

But when I told them I’d been hired at Cleveland Public Library, each and every single one of them said, “Oh, all those books! That’s perfect for you! You’ll love it!” And that’s the public perception of the library and librarians: we’re sexy, pencil-bunned women surrounded by books. People remember Miss Helen, who taught them to read at storytime. They remember learning about mitosis and meiosis in their high school libraries. And they look back fondly on eating pancakes in the library at midnight during college finals week.

Those are lovely memories, and yes, I am surrounded by books, and yes, I’ve got my hair pinned up today as I sit behind the computer assistant desk at the Rice Library in Buckeye/Larchmere. But I am not in the book business. I am in the Cleveland business.

The people of Cleveland come in every morning to read the newspaper. I am in the business of public engagement with civic life, of helping people find out the truth about our government, and of teaching them to sort out truth from propaganda, facts from alternative facts. I am in the business of defending free speech, democracy, and civil rights.

All day, every day, dozens of men—almost all men—come in for their two precious hours of computer time. We learn everything from how to use a mouse to how to fill out an online job application. We write resumes. I refer people to job training programs. I teach home health aides to make copies of their timesheets and fax them in. Pierre’s Ice Cream is hiring; so is Coca-Cola; you can get your CDL through the El Barrio Workforce Development program. I am not in the book business: I am in the (un)employment business.

A young caucasian boy and an brown-skinned girl eating apples at a table and laughing wildely.The children of Cleveland come in at 3:34 on the dot, 50 third-graders shrieking for their lunch. We give them each a paper bag: a sandwich, a carton of skim milk, a piece of fruit. I slice oranges. I look at the skinnier kids and think that actually, whole milk would be better. I cajole them into cleaning up after themselves. Then we do an activity (Music Mondays! Tech Tuesdays!), read a story, and do homework or play video games until closing time. I am not in the book business. I am in the raising children business.

All day long, harried women—it’s almost entirely women—come in clutching envelopes from Job and Family Services, desperate to use the fax machine. I’ve faxed in pay stubs, tax returns, driver’s licenses, all the floating and easily lost paperwork that they need to navigate the social service system. If this is a safety net, it’s one that requires some serious computer savvy and an endless supply of dimes. Don’t tell my manager, but occasionally I’ve swiped my own card for a woman with three kids, one crucial document, and no dime. I am not in the book business. I am in the alleviating poverty business.

Young man speaking into a microphoneOn Wednesday nights, the library is busy—people used to go to church on Wednesday nights, but now they come to the poetry slam, or the knitting group, or the gallery walk, or the movie screening. I am not in the book business; I am in the arts business.

But yes, it’s true that occasionally, I get to be in the book business, finding a book on crystal healing for a Jack-Sparrow-costumed Vietnam vet, who’s an evangelist for the Nation of Islam. I get to help hipsters track down books by Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, and Amy Sedaris. I get to check out a stack of kids’ DVDs and then cautiously check them in, opening them discreetly over the counter, not my lap, in case of bedbugs or roaches or lice. I get to give hopeful young men stacks of CDs by Marvin Gaye, Barry White, and Luther Vandross. They blush a little. It’s cute. I am in the healing-laughing-babysitting-true-love business.

We’ve been worrying about the future of the library business since Hypatia. But I am not worried about the future of libraries, because we are already in the future of libraries. We are in the book business, and the social service business, and the education business, and the arts business, and the true love business. Here at the Rice library, we’re in the Cleveland business. And none of those businesses is going away.