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Pedestrian 33: The Library Is My Office
On writing a book at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library.
Three or four times a week, I take the N train to Times Square–42nd Street. Once emerging from the station, a familiar dance begins.
High-rises and skyscrapers stare from above, watching me as I weave between slow moving tourists and office workers filling the sidewalks. I inhale, filling my lungs with that distinct Midtown air—a damp scent often mixed with halal food trucks, sewage, and roasted hot nuts carts.
The familiar jingle of an ice cream truck pierces through honking horns and a sea of vehicles gliding across well worn asphalt. Seven minutes later, I walk through the painfully slow revolving doors of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, take the elevator to the second or fourth floor, and grab a chair at one of the massive wood tables. I’ve reached my destination.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library is my provisional office. There, I spend my afternoons writing. I’ve been on a long journey to find such a suitable office, where I can comfortably work, but I’m happy to announce I’ve finally found it. For the last three months, I’ve spent hours at the library, devoting much of my creative energy into a book of writing and photographs from the last three years of walking. This book has been in the works for nearly two years, but is tentatively set to be released later this fall. Stay tuned.
I write at the library because I’m not the kind of artist who necessarily needs a studio in one place. My work can happen anywhere. I enjoy making use of public services (like public transit) and can’t justify spending more money on rent in the most expensive rental market in the United States. Although—mark my word—I will have my own Midtown office of the Robert Caro ilk (a dreamer can dream). Until that day finally comes, I will continue making use of the library’s facilities, which remain free to the public and don't even require a library card (unless you’re trying to check out a book or laptop).
I don’t have to ride the train all the way to the library—I choose to do so. At home, I have a perfectly fine workspace where I can write, but I don’t enjoy writing from home. I’m too easily distracted and always looking for any excuse to avoid sitting down and getting to work. The unwashed dishes collected in my sink always seem to take precedent. Or was it a phone call to a friend? Did I mail that package the other day? Don’t mention the couch in my living room—always urging me to lay down and float away into the evening (an invitation I accept all too frequently). In my apartment, the boundaries between life’s responsibilities and creative work are too close for comfort.
Writing at the library has proven beneficial to my practice, otherwise I’d find some other place to call my office. The commute alone proves a forcing function. The forty minute ride up to 42nd street from Sunset Park in Brooklyn validates the work, given I’ve taken such lengths to be there. Once I find a seat at the library, I’m momentarily teleported and relieved from the stresses of everyday demands of both home and work.
The company of my fellow library goers causes me to write far more than I would have if I stayed home and worked alone. Though we rarely speak—only when asking to keep a close eye on valuable belongings while making a trip to the restroom—their presence is felt. They are an audience watching me and I can’t stomach letting them down. Social facilitation 101.
This isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to make a public space my own office. Since moving to New York City, I’ve made various coffeeshops my home base. Some are more memorable than others.
Prior to declaring the library as my office, I worked at a coffee shop in Chelsea. Despite friendly ownership and late hours, I concluded the space wasn't conducive to writing. New York coffee shops typically occupy small spaces, have limited power outlets for a dying laptop, sometimes play loud music, and run out of seating quickly. This particular coffeeshop was no exception.
Besides, a coffee shop is a place of business trying to make money. I wasn’t patronizing the space as a customer, but as someone mooching free Wi-Fi and working space. Understandably that made me self-conscious, especially when nursing a small cup of coffee—my only purchase—throughout the day.
I’m no longer self-conscious. The New York Public Library doesn’t ask anything of me, other than to keep my voice down. The institution is inherently not about making money (despite a looming $36.2 million budget cut proposed by city hall), but about providing free services to the public. Those who peruse the stacks are welcomed, with no opposition, to linger endlessly, read a book, engage in independent research, and get to work—whatever that may be. I’ve yet to see anyone escorted from the facilities.
Finding the right library to call my office took time. I spent weeks visiting the world famous Stephen A. Schwarzman Building—the flagship of the New York Public Library (NYPL) system. The same library that draws thousands of tourists from all over the world. There, I worked at the incredibly photogenic Rose Main Reading Room—a place that could legitimize even the worst of writing. No matter the time of day, I could always find a place to sit and write in absolute silence at one of many massive tables filling the chamber.
Considered one of the NYPL’s premier research centers, the flagship does not offer a circulating collection, but feels closer to an academic institution (working there often feels as though I’ve returned to college), than a public library. All things fine and dandy, until discovering one small caveat: the Wi-Fi at the Schwarzman Building is absolutely terrible.
I powered through— spotty Wi-Fi and all—until expressing my discontent to my friend Sandeep. She recommended I visit the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, conveniently located across the street from the Schwarzman Building. Somehow I overlooked the massive New York Public Library flags hanging from the facade for weeks. The discovery has been nothing short of a revelation. My life has forever changed.
The Stavros isn’t nearly as beautiful as the Schwarzman Building, but for what it lacks aesthetically, is easily made up for in shining personality. The Stavros was originally known as the Mid-Manhattan Library and opened in 1970 to house the circulating collection formerly located in the Schwarzman Building. The branch then moved to its current building, a former department store, in 1981. After a failed attempt to close the Mid-Manhattan Library in the 2010’s (partially thwarted by well organized library patrons), the NYPL instead announced a major renovation of the branch in 2014. Between 2017 and 2020, the branch was closed for renovations funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and the library was renamed after the foundation.
The library is massive at eight stories tall (the tallest in the entire NYPL system?) and capped by a blue aluminum structure—often called the “wizard hat”—to conceal mechanical equipment. The circulating library has the capacity for approximately 400,000 books, the largest capacity for circulating materials in the entire New York Public Library system. A true powerhouse of wisdom.
A cafe sits on the top floor and is accompanied by a terrace which commands an excellent view of Midtown. Seating can be limited, but I have yet to visit and not find a seat. Most importantly, the Wi-Fi is very, very reliable. I haven’t returned to the Schwarzman Building since.
Working at the Stavros proves more than just a place to write. The Stavros is inherently public—a place for the people. Best described as a third space, as coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg in his book The Great Good Place, in that the library is a social setting separate from home and work. At the library, socioeconomic status does not matter—all are welcome. There are no requirements, save for an easily obtained library card, preventing anyone from using the facilities. No visitors face pretension. Regulars are common. Using the library grants access to a space that is rapidly disappearing in New York City. The library is not a storage space for books, afterall, but about people.
The library remains one of the few remaining public spaces where New Yorkers of all ranks can relax and let their hair down. It’s not unusual to find multiple people napping—faces buried in a book—across multiple floors. The library often feels like a home away from home, or better yet, New York City’s own public office.
The library isn’t always harmonious. Writing in public sometimes comes with a price. By nature of living in New York City, scuffles and arguments are bound to happen. Sometimes patrons speak loudly or take phone calls instead of moving to the stairwell (an unwritten rule among library goers). On occasion, I’ve seen a mouse running around the stacks.
My biggest concern is finding someone to watch my laptop when I need to fill my water bottle or use the restroom. Not a difficult ask, but can feel like a hassle, especially while trying to stay hydrated throughout the day (a problem I would never have at home or in my own office). None of these minor complications are grounds for discontinuing my visits.
Besides, I don’t write at the library because doing so is perfect. I write at the library because I’m inspired by my visits. I want to be among the public. My walks take place in public, why not write an entire book in public too? The library is the appropriate setting.
An ecosystem has blossomed as a result of visiting the library regularly. My lunch breaks spent walking around the neighborhood are just as informative as putting pen to paper.
There is no shortage of people in nearby Bryant Park on any given day, which always makes for good people watching. If I’m lucky, I can catch the Juggling Club, who meet from noon to 1pm, Monday through Friday.
I’ve also become a familiar face at an adjacent coffee shop. I always look forward to chatting about photography with one of the baristas—spurred by the camera around my neck—while waiting for my macchiato. Sometimes I get a free one.
I would have never discovered Shamas Deli, a sandwich shop located in a former parking garage, if not for my library visits. Johnny, the owner, started the business thirty years ago after immigrating from Pakistan. He is always eager to chat and claims to make the “best sandwiches in NYC” as listed on the sign outside.
The deli is hardly a secret. Business is always steady. At lunchtime, office workers gather outside while waiting on their orders (the interior only has room to place an order). A laminated picture of David Letterman, supposedly a frequent patron, sits beside the register and below a sign advertising iced coffee.
My friends love to ask me—often with a chuckle—how my office is treating me. Some have even joined me.
Progress on the book is good. Moving slowly and steadily. Without the library, I would likely be twiddling my thumbs at home or looking for a power outlet in some Chelsea coffee shop. The library remains an inspiration—a vital piece contributing to my place. One of many reasons why I continue to call beautiful New York City home.
I’ll continue dreaming of my own Midtown office, but sometimes—usually while taking a bite of my Shamas Deli sandwich as the Bryant Park Juggling Club passes bowling pins back and forth—I begin to reconsider my own priorities. Maybe the library has everything I’ll ever need in an office. I will let time decide. For the foreseeable future you will find me writing—in public—at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library.
Thanks for reading,
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library
455 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10016
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