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New Discoveries In An Old Favorite

By Teresa Byrne-Dodge
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One of the many satisfactions of revisiting a city where you used to live is discovering all the new restaurants, music venues, shops and museum exhibits that have opened since you moved away. But sometimes it’s a great pleasure to revisit your old hometown and discover something old that you never knew about.

That was the case recently when we went to NYC for a class reunion and used all of our free Friday to visit several new-to-us spots. One was the Society of Illustrators at 128 East 63rd where we took in an exhibit celebrating the centennial of cartoonist/graphic novelist Will Eisner (photo below).

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If you remember fictional masked crime-fighter The Spirit, this exhibit is for you. It includes many original newspaper sections as well as a must-see documentary and will remain up through June 4, 2017.

Don’t leave the Society without checking out the historic bar, located on the third floor. It opens onto a balcony that is surrounded by taller buildings on all sides, so you can sit outside on a fine day in weirdly public semi-privacy. It’s a funky-cozy spot; note Welsh artist and Hunter S. Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman’s ink splatter on the wall to the left. Have a drink, take in the original Norman Rockwell painting The Dover Coach (photo below) over the bar and, on Tuesday evenings, enjoy live entertainment.

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The historic bar at the Society of Illustrators

The second astonishment was The New York Society Library, founded in 1754 and today located at 53 East 79th. Yes, it’s more than 250 years old, and it still owns the original 1772 charter from King George III, written on vellum.

This private library has been housed in many buildings, first in the old City Hall on Wall Street. It then moved to 33 Nassau Street, also in the Wall Street area. As New York City spread north up the Manhattan island, the library followed, first to a location on Leonard and Broadway and then to 109 University Place (photo below) near Washington Square Park. It finally relocated in 1937 to its current location, a landmark building on the Upper East Side.

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The interior of the New York Society Library at University Place.

The library is open to the public for reading, reference and other events. Only members, however, may check out books and use the handsome reading rooms (photo below) and writing rooms. As a writer, I was fascinated by these tiny closet-sized writing rooms, which I’ve never before seen. They reminded me of the practice rooms in a music school.

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The Members’ Room at the New York Society Library

We dropped in, not really expecting to be welcomed to a private library – we’ve found the private libraries in London are not friendly to non-members – and were graciously shown around all four floors by librarian Emily Arimura, who is also a poet. She offered many observations about the Library’s history, telling us about the authors, poets, playwrights and statesmen who have made this book-packed facility a home-away-from-home. Among the many: George Washington, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, Wendy Wasserstein, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John James Audubon, W.H. Auden and John Jacob Astor.

True story: In the 1770s, British soldiers looted the Library’s books during the American Revolution and used torn-out pages from some of the books to make wadding for their rifles.

The Library hosts writing groups, classes, reading hours for children and literary seminars. We just missed hearing a talk by Terry McDonell (author of the recently published The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers) by two days, but Roz Chast, The New Yorker cartoonist and author, will give a lecture there on May 24, 2017.

This fascinating place is worth a visit for the history, the books – they still publish a “New Books” list every month, on paper – and even the art. We noted an original dedicated work by Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar the Elephant King (photo at bottom), in the children’s library.

And just to make sure you know this is no snooty London private library, there’s a new front door sign that says, All Are Welcome – We Mean It.

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