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In search of home, lit. lovers find Irish cheer

Matthew Lawrence is not a particular fan of St. Patrick's Day, or of one of Ireland's best-known writers, James Joyce.

But Lawrence donned a green tie and sport jacket Monday night to lead a reading of the Irish author's short story "The Dead" amid the crowded stacks and shelves of Ada Books. About 30 local residents, college students and professors filled the small space of the independent bookstore, located in the heart of downtown Providence.

Lawrence, who organizes readings and other literary events in the city through his Web site, Not About the Buildings, picked a set of names from a green cigar box, drawing up the list of the night's 19 readers. He gestured Maureen Reddy, one of the readers, toward a moss-colored armchair. With a copy of James Joyce's "Dubliners" in one hand and a bottle of Harp Lager in the other, Reddy pronounced Joyce's words in a coarse whisper.

"And haven't you your own language to keep in touch with - Irish?" she read aloud.

But the night - complete with Irish soda bread - was not just a celebration of the luck of the Irish. Lawrence intended the event to keep a love of literature alive in the Providence community.

"My goal is to make sure people keep reading," he said.

Not About the Buildings

Lawrence founded Not About the Buildings in 2004 after the Providence Public Library threatened to close six of its branches.

He began the informational blog for "people who didn't want to see their public library close," Lawrence said.

Ultimately, the PPL did not close its branches, ancestors of the nation's first public library. But the threat of branch closure lingered, and Not About the Buildings remained on the Web.

Lawrence, who said he quit his day job at the Brown Bookstore six months ago, soon broke out of cyberspace and into greater Providence. In 2007, he organized a month-long gallery show at Firehouse 13, a space for contemporary artists, musicians and entrepreneurs to showcase their work. The library-themed show included readings, live music, movie nights, a book sale and a spelling bee, won by Dead-In reader Maureen Reddy.

Since 2007, Lawrence has organized various events - from book clubs to fiction contests - at public libraries and independent bookstores in Providence, including a three-hour reading of Ethan Frome at Ada Books last year. "The Dead-In" seemed like a festive way to continue the tradition begun by the "Frome-In," Lawrence said.

While academics and intellectuals debate the philosophical consequences of the Internet Revolution, Lawrence said not all Providence residents access the wealth of information that the technology provides.

According to Lawrence, public libraries are the only sources of information for some local residents. Free readings, like those Lawrence hosts, help people enter the world of literature, he said.

"I want people to realize that libraries are important because a lot of people don't have other access to information," Lawrence said. "Sometimes people just need a little push."

But Lawrence said he feels uncomfortable talking about his work in terms of "value."

"It's not like I'm building shelters for homeless people," he said.

Likewise, Visiting Lecturer in English Kate Schapira, who met Lawrence while working at the Brown Bookstore, said she sometimes questions the value of literature. "What is poetry for? What can it do?"

"Nobody can eat it or sleep underneath it," she said. "But maybe it's okay for it to be smart fun and not have it house anybody or feed anybody."

Libraries in Danger

In today's economic climate, it may be getting harder to bring books and people together. The PPL projects a $1 million deficit for the coming year, said Tonia Mason, marketing director for the city's library system.

Earlier this month, the city refused the PPL's plan to resolve the budget deficit that involved closing five local branches, said Linda Kushner, co-founder of the Providence Community Library, an organization dedicated to maintaining the city's libraries.

"It's always been (the PPL's) solution to knock down branches," Kushner said.

Mason said "everything is uncertain now" given the lack of sufficient government funds for the PPL.

"We're trying to keep the doors open, to have someone there to turn on the lights," she said. "Funding is not available for a lot of the stuff that makes a library a library."

For example, the fund that usually buys new books for library branches has been frozen since October, Mason said.

Lawrence pointed out that since the beginning of the freeze, a new president has entered the White House.

"On the one hand, funds have only been frozen for a few months," he said. "On the other hand, there are no books about Obama in our public libraries."

As Lawrence embarks on a new project to solicit more donations of children's books about the new president for public libraries whose strained budgets can't afford them, the importance of free access to books is growing.

According to a study released earlier this month by the Rhode Island Library Association, the state's residents have increasingly turned to their public libraries since the start of the recession. Despite the PPL's deficit and spending freezes, the study shows that library usage has increased 40 percent since 2007.

Many residents are turning to the library's computer labs to look for jobs, learn how to write resumes and search for affordable housing online, Mason said.

A dream realized

Amid the growing concern about the survival of the PPL's branches, others like Lawrence have committed to strengthening Providence's literary community - including Ada Books' owner, Brent Legault.

After Legault first left his hometown in California, he worked at a used bookstore whose mile-high stacks of dusty tomes left customers and employees lost and confused.

When a customer came in search of a book, Legault would have to say in frustration, "You'll have to look for it yourself."

After working in that "behemoth" of a bookstore, he craved order, he said. Legault designed Ada Books, his "almost-dream bookstore," with a curator's precision.

His hand-written yellow tags mark the boundaries between the store's sections - fiction, comics, poetry, philosophy and politics. "Just the fun stuff," Legault said.

In the front of the store, he has carefully laid out the chapbooks and 'zines of local writers on a wooden rack.

"It sounds like I'm a neat freak, but I'm not," Legault said. "I just really like bringing a book and a person together."

Back to James Joyce

During the hour-and-a-half reading of "The Dead" Monday night, Lawrence snapped pictures of Reddy, his former English teacher at Rhode Island College, as she read aloud her section of the novella. The corners of his wiry brown beard turned up in a smile as the crowd laughed at a morsel of Joycean sarcasm.

Meanwhile, Legault sat still and attentive in the chair closest to the cash register, soda bread and beer.

As the reading continued, some people in the crowd followed along in copies of "The Dubliners" provided by the bookstore.

When University of Rhode Island student Rachel Smith read the final line of Joyce's short story, the crowd sat silent for a moment, then applauded.

Lawrence encouraged the people sitting in the bookstore to mingle because of what they had in common.

"You're all good readers," he said.


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