Bernie Margolis would need only the red outfit to make a convincing Santa Claus. It’s not just his white hair and lively eyes. It’s the glee liable to break out at any moment—the joy that Bernie exudes about his workshop. Bernie’s workshop doesn’t make toys. Bernie’s workshop, which at the slightest prompting he will describe with a proprietor’s pride, is the Boston Public Library.
“Did you know the BPL is America’s only public library that is also a presidential library?” Bernie asked me on one of my first visits. “It’s John Adams’s Presidential Library. David McCullough researched his John Adams here, and later became a trustee. And let me show you the Abbey Room, which is truly amazing…”
It was on my first tour with Bernie that we came upon a pile of canvas bags down in the basement. I picked one up by its handles and saw that it was unusually deep, stenciled with “Boston Public Library,” and considerably worn.
“We’ve been using these bags for the past hundred years or so,” Bernie said. “The reason they’re so deep is so the delivery man can carry the most number of books relatively comfortably as he shuttles them between our branch libraries—from the truck, up and down stairs, that sort of thing.” Bernie picked up one bag in each hand. “It’s best if you carry two at a time to balance yourself,” he advised.
I knew we had to have them. Or rather, our customers did. They’d use this bag for any number of things, and they’d probably appreciate the history.
Little did I know what I was getting Levenger into when I convinced Bernie to let us reproduce the delivery bag. The project taught me what a stickler the affable Bernie Margolis can be.
Considering ourselves to be experts in bags, we sent the design specs to our top canvas-bag manufacturer. We were quite pleased with the first samples, tested them out loaded to the max with books, and sent the bags with high expectations to Bernie. A week later we heard from Bernie’s office.
The bottom needed to be doubled.
“No it doesn’t,” countered our bag designer, who considered herself the expert in such matters. “It’s plenty strong enough with the gauge of canvas and heavy-duty thread.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I answered, trying to smooth her. “But Bernie wants it doubled bottomed. It can’t hurt, can it?”
“Well, no,” she agreed, holding the bag aloft and patting its bottom like a mother might pat her baby’s bottom. “It will just add some cost.”
The next round of samples with double layers of canvas did meet Bernie’s approval. Today, I’m proud to say, the delivery staff of the BPL uses these same bags on its daily rounds.
Stenciled inside the bag is the quotation etched in stone above the
Boylston Street entrance of the BPL:
The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.
I’m proud to report that Levenger has paid the Library more than $25,000 in royalties for the bags as of the fall of 2007, showing that commerce and charitable giving can travel together. Plus, it brings out that sparkle in Bernie’s eyes.
And so with the bag as our first project, we felt prepared for something bigger. To be more specific, two big bronze ladies who have presided in front of the library since 1914. More on this in a future report…