"You Need To Go There"

847 Chapel Street, New Haven, Conn.

Many who know me know that I've been involved for some years with the Young Men's Institute Library, which has been located at 847 Chapel Street for the last hundred-and-some years. Growing up on York Street in the 1970s I had no idea the Library was there; living downtown in the 1980s and 1990s, I still didn't know it was there until (and I write this with chagrin) a Yale undergrad asked me one day if I knew anything about the place. I knew nothing. And I was too chicken to go up there and find out what it was. But the Yalie -- a sweet-and-fearless type -- went, and came back to me a day later saying, "You Need To Go There." In 2002 I was given a membership as a gift, and it changed my life. A few years after that, I joined the board of the Library, and my life changed again -- I gained a mission. I am an evangelist for the Institute Library.

At a dinner party in the fall of 2008 I met Will Baker, a local bookman. Our casual conversation about bookselling led me to ask him if he ever went to the Institute Library. He hadn't heard of it. I said, "Oh, you need go -- let me take you some day on your lunch break."

I took Will to see the Library the following week, as I recall, and it was, I gather, love at first sight. Shortly after that, Will left his position at the William Reese Company and enrolled in a library science program, a move that I found slightly confounding, but also understood: he had a mission, too. For various school assignments, Will threw himself into projects relating to or benefitting the Library. He built its first website -- a lovely, elegant little thing -- and conducted a survey of its members which was full of information that was interesting, surprising, and valuable -- and which would never have been undertaken by anyone on the Library's staff or board. The scale of effort Will put into these projects was simply beyond any one of us: these were labors of love, not merely assignments done to fulfill a degree requirement.

In January of 2011, the Board voted to install William C. Baker as the first Executive Director of the Young Men's Institute Library. A superior bookman -- by which I mean widely read, knowledgeable, and seemingly a Hoover for all information book-related -- Will moved to New Haven a few years ago and has thrown himself into becoming one of those social-lightning-rod types you read about in Malcolm Gladwell essays. I had heard of Will, myself, for years before I actually met him. On becoming acquainted with him, I learned that we knew at least a dozen of the same people. He's done volunteer work for New Haven Reads and at Christ Church New Haven; he has talked at length with at least 75% of the people he's ever laid eyes on, as far as I can tell; if he were interested in political office, he'd be a force to watch, but as it is, he's a bookman, and so he's just.... amazing.

Some folks are whip smart, and some folks are genuinely nice, and some folks are energetic and full of interesting ideas, but very few people combine all of these qualities. Will combines all of these qualities and adds a lot more to the mix; fortunately for the Institute Library, he's directing his love and energy toward the Library now, officially and full-time. The Library's hours have expanded: it is now open not just ten hours a week, but six days a week (M-F, 10-6; Saturday, with volunteer staff, 10-3). With Will at the helm, the Library will be developing new programming; re-working acquisitions policies; and, frankly, God knows what else. The guy's got a list of plans longer than my arm.

I know it's been hard for people to appreciate the Library in recent years because its hours were so choppy and difficult to work with. But now, the hours are longer. The place is open and right in the middle of a very buzz-y neighborhood (Chapel Street near Church -- there's a lot happening there); and there's wireless internet. You can go up and browse the shelves of books and borrow a stack of obscure 1930s thrillers or you can just sit and read for a bit and then amble off on your way. Either way, you are welcome to come by. Membership to the Library is still a humble $25 per year (and can be purchased with plastic for the first time if you go to www.institutelibrary.org).

I fell in love with the Institute Library when I saw they had almost every old book by Patrick Dennis on the shelf. Just sitting there. Waiting for me. I imagine that people who read the New Haven Review would have some similar experience on first browsing the stacks. On first walking in. The Institute Library is a beautiful time machine; a librarian walked in, one recent Saturday, and said to me in wonder, "It's a museum of what a library used to be." And it is.... except it's not a museum. It's the real deal. An old-fashioned membership library.

I predict you can fall in love with it too, and then, knocked silly with joy, you can leave the library and go have freshly made square doughnuts at the Orangeside Luncheonette around the corner. Really, a near-perfect morning.