I tried to keep it a secret, as much as someone can keep things like this a secret. I didn’t mention it in conversations. I didn’t make any plans or drop any hints.
My best case scenario was only my oldest friends and closest family members would remember.
It didn’t quite go as planned. When you’re turning 40 years old, somehow word gets out.
Facebook is smarter than me…
It wasn’t the number 40 that made me want to keep my birthday quiet. It was the attention a milestone birthday brings. I didn’t want a big party or shout-outs on Facebook.
Turns out if you don’t want to get noticed on Facebook, it is best to remember the existence (and password) of all of your Facebook accounts. Brilliantly, I turned off the birthday notification on my author Facebook page and completely forgot I have another personal page, which I haven’t checked in probably over five years.
I’ve told myself this oversight was not because I’m an out-of-touch, 40-year-old social media Luddite and turning into….wait for it….my parents. But that Facebook is actually evil and wanted to prove I couldn’t outsmart it.
(Side note: I am very sorry to anyone who said happy birthday to me on my personal Facebook account and I didn’t reply or like it or whatever people do for birthdays on Facebook.)
My birthday likes and dislikes are pretty clear…and probably annoying to the people who love me
So the things I didn’t want for my birthday: No parties, no major acknowledgment on social media (or in general), no gifts. Basically, I wanted it to pass like any other day.
Since that wasn’t likely to happen, I told my husband the one thing I would like to do: go home. Or, rather, go to the place I called home for the majority of my 20s and part of my 30s. It’s a place I often say I left a piece of my heart—New York City.
And so, with the help of my daughter, my husband cooked up a weekend getaway to our old hometown. Because my family knows their writing- and reading-obsessed mother/wife well, they also added some literary spice on top.
If you’re looking for a perfect, bookish weekend in NYC, maybe my anti-birthday birthday celebration literary tour of NYC will give you a little inspiration.
Stop #1: I don’t know how I’ll stay in a non-library hotel ever again…
At the apex of 41st Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan stands a long, white marbled building, hoisted up by ornate columns and topped with Romanesque statues. Two stone lions guard the entrance.
Time has tinted it a silvery gray, but that only adds to its grandeur. It’s a place filled with beauty and knowledge. And, for a small period in the 1980s, Ghostbusters.
It’s the New York Public Library.
Following the sidewalk down 41st street, golden plaques etched with literary quotes lead pedestrians to Madison Avenue. This little portion of the street has a second name. It’s “Library Way.” And right on the corner of Madison, above a narrow, unassuming doorway, are the words “The Library Hotel.”
As I gazed up at the entrance to the Library Hotel, I felt a bit like a fool. For nearly a decade I walked down 5th Avenue, crossed over to Madison and entered a sky-scraping building on Madison and 42nd for work. How had I never known of the existence of this hotel and the plaques leading to it like perfect literary breadcrumbs? (Turns out, I don’t have to kick myself out of the bibliophile club just yet, at least not for this. The property became the Library Hotel after I left NYC.)
The inside of the hotel has dark wood, plush chairs and walls of books. Each level of the hotel has an overarching literary theme. (We got the General Knowledge level, which sounds lame, but is actually pretty eclectic and interesting).
The rooms are filled with books that align with the theme of your level, complete with Dewey Decimal System white labels for reading during the stay. (It’s a library hotel so you cannot take them home.)
But, you can get a book concierge, who prior to your stay inquires about your favorite subjects and types of books. The concierge works with The Strand bookstore in Union Square to procure a collection of books just for you, to keep.
I’m pretty sure when I opened the door to my room and saw my present of books, wrapped with a red bow, the literary angels sang and a bright light shined down on it through the window. At least that’s what it felt like to me.
I rushed right to the book stack and I tried to hug it, nearly knocking it to the ground. Thus confirming the theory that books are meant to be read, not hugged.
After hastily reading the card and unwrapping the books, I immediately took off my shoes and snuggled into the bed to read.
Best. Birthday. Ever.
And it was only going to get better….
Stop #2: A prodigal daughter visits the New York Public Library for the first time
If you have ever been a city dweller, you know there is an unspoken hypocrisy when it comes to tourists. City residents roll their eyes and grumble about tourists while openly benefiting from the money these selfie-stick-toting, sneaker-wearing, slow-walking people bring into their city. This is just the way things are. It’s a delicate balance.
When I lived in NYC, I worked a block away from the New York Public Library for nearly a decade and never once went inside.
At the time, I viewed the tourists clogging the sidewalk in front of the library as impediments. They slowed me down as I rushed through the streets trying to get to work/train/lunch. And so the library, by extension, became an impediment. Its stone walls and columns tainted by association.
The library hasn’t changed since I lived in NYC, but I have. Tourists still clog the sidewalk, but now I am one of them. I’m a prodigal daughter who can see past my former pretension and enjoy the city on a different level, both metaphorically, and it turns out, literally and literarily.
And so, after wresting me from my cozy reading spot at the Library Hotel, my husband and I, both for the first time in our lives, stepped inside this iconic library.
Turns out, Ghostbusters did not properly prepare me for the experience. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Walls of marble. Giant candelabras. Busts and sculptures. It felt like the Louvre, not a library.
The library exhibits added to the museum feel of the building. We spent a long time wandering through an exhibit called Revolution. It focused on the culture and literature of the Vietnam War era. (Side note: It felt a little surreal and depressing because the exhibit could have been about right now.)
Up until this point, we had not seen an actual book, except for a few glass-encased manuscripts in the exhibits. Climbing up a level of marble stairs, we finally discovered there is actually a library in the New York Public library. And it was awesome.
Books lined the lower half of the rooms, almost seeming inconsequential under the soaring ceilings. Almost. People sat next to small lamps, heads bent over books. Actual library patrons in action! They focused on reading, while I, with the other tourists, snapped pictures, like visitors at a really weird zoo.
But even in the book-filled rooms, I still couldn’t shake the feeling I wasn’t in a library, but a museum. Dark paneling. Oil paintings. Wrought iron chandeliers. Gold plating. Ornate trim. And to complete the museum aesthetic, soaring above each room were elaborate murals, like in the Sistine Chapel.
I was a little surprised I didn’t see more cherubs. (Note to the NYC library, perhaps invest in a few tiny baby angels. If Renaissance art has taught us anything, everyone loves tiny baby angels.)
My musings about the museum-like quality of the New York Public Library should not be viewed as a criticism or a complaint. In fact, there is something very spiritual about the library.
For most of our human existence, we’ve spent countless man-hours, time and money beautifying religious spaces like churches and synagogues and mosques. We have filled them with paintings, murals, stained glass, mosaics and numerous other forms of artwork. They’re in large, formidable buildings with sometimes extremely ornate facades.
For me, books are just as spiritual as religion and by treating a library like a religious space, decorating it with awe-inspiring art and encasing it in marbled walls, it makes the New York Public Library feel like a place of worship for literature and knowledge.
Stop #3: A museum about libraries…get your reading glasses, it’s time to party…
We entered the modern building with its straight boxed lines and glass elevator, curious but with relatively low expectations. This was the Morgan Library and Museum. Essentially, it was described to us as a museum about libraries. Even though we love books and museums, we were skeptical.
Before entering, I imagined exhibits on “librarians through the years” or “establishing the Dewey Decimal System.” None of which seemed particularly compelling. In fact, the only reason we chose to visit The Morgan was that we’d received free tickets with our stay at the Library Hotel.
My husband and I first wandered into an exhibit on medieval manuscripts. Thick books with drawings twisting like vines around hand-written text lined the outside perimeter of the exhibit. At its center was a giant illuminated manuscript scroll encased in glass, so long it probably would have stretched across all of Manhattan if fully laid out.
We quickly became absorbed by the shimmering pictures and pondered the complex medieval calendars (aka, astrolabes) mounted on the wall.
In the next room, we encountered something completely different. Here beautiful, unflinching black and white photographs, mostly portraits, hung on stark white walls. Some were very unnerving, but all much more fascinating than the history of the Dewey Decimal system.
We ended our tour of the museum learning about Tennessee Williams. His exhibit included primordial versions of his plays, scribbled and scratched up with his notes and documents outlining his successes and failures. (Note: Moral of the exhibit, see his plays as plays. Apparently, although the movies are Oscar-winning, they leave out all the good stuff.)
As we exited the museum my husband and I both said the same thing, “That was shockingly interesting.”
Note: After returning from NYC, I discovered I somehow missed an entire incredible half of the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s the non-modernized half that looks like something out of Harry Potter with books weaving up three levels, rolling ladders and a ceiling painted with literary scenes. Birthday weekend fail! (Or partial fail. The other half of the museum was also very cool.)
Not sure how I missed this, but apparently I need to go back and try again.
Stop #4: There’s no place like…the best indie bookstore on the planet
No bookish visit to NYC is complete without visiting The Strand. The bookstore is not new to me. For a while my husband and I lived just north of Union Square and spent many nights and weekends walking through the park, watching a movie at the theater, eating dinner at the now-defunct Republic and, yes, visiting The Strand.
The Strand, isn’t just a bookstore, it’s a New York institution. And if it ever closes down, New York will have lost a part of its soul. Although I already had a stack of books, procured by the Library Hotel book concierge with the help of the lovely salespeople at The Strand, I had to stop in and maybe buy a few more books. (A girl can never, ever have enough books. I will stand by this statement until I die.)
It was just as I remembered. Books clustered on old wheelie carts on the sidewalk outside. Stacks of books on tables in the front, shelves in the back. Old books. New books. Book-related tchotchkes.
For me, The Strand will always be the quintessential indie bookstore. And it filled me with joy and pride to have to squeeze through the narrow aisles, not just because they were narrow, but because they were packed with people. Long live the indie bookstore.
Stop #5: Bookmarks and strange cocktails…Or the best end to the best literary day
After a long day of books and libraries, what better way to end the evening than with…more books. Well, in this case, it was a book-themed bar. Just a few floors above our room in the Library Hotel was a little bar called Bookmarks (aptly named.) The bar spills out onto a garden terrace filled with ample seating and blooming trees.
The menu boasts of (overly expensive and sometimes odd) literary-themed cocktails. While I appreciated the “novelty” the beverages, some of the drinks were complex (translation: experimental and sometimes the experiment failed). My suggestion, should you ever visit the bar (and you can even if you don’t stay in the hotel), don’t choose a drink just because it has a cute pun in the name. (That’s probably good advice when choosing any food or beverage.)
However, the best part of the bar was on the other side of the brick walls of the garden.
Standing on my tiptoes (because I’m short, taller people may not have this problem), at just the right angle, I could see right down 41st Street to the New York Public Library. In the fading sun, it glowed with a tinge of orange.
At the bar, my husband and I relaxed into our cozy love seat under a pink flowering tree and enjoyed our sometimes odd literary beverages.
The perfect end to a perfect day.
I’m not sure how I’ll ever be happy staying in a non-library hotel ever again. Forever spoiled. Thanks, daughter and husband for the best birthday ever. I have a feeling this trip might end up on the page of a book someday, in one form or another, like all my favorite people and experiences do…