New York has been roiled with closures of cultural institutions this week, since the effort to stop the coronavirus kicked into high gear.
But for a certain kind of New Yorker, the news on Friday that the New York Public Library would be closing the soaring Rose Main Reading Room in its 42nd Street flagship — along with its 91 other locations — at least until April 1 caused a special kind of sadness and alarm.
The reading room, lined with two levels of bookshelves and huge arched windows overlooking Bryant Park, is one of the great spaces of New York. It’s a Grand Central Terminal for the bookish, complete with (in more ordinary times) crowds of tourists snapping photos from a designated zone near the entrance.
The room, an interior landmark stretching the length of two city blocks, is a place to consult some of the 18 million volumes in the research collection, use the computers, do homework, or simply stare up at the magnificent 52-foot coffered ceilings with murals of pink-streaked clouds. It’s one of the city’s rare bits of luxurious transcendence that is truly open to all.
“For some people, their getaway is the beach or a spa,” said Lyubov Ginzburg, an independent scholar who had rushed over to consult a few books after she heard about the closing. “For me, it’s the library.”
At 3 p.m., three hours before closing, the reading room was hardly deserted. But the crowds were markedly thin, several regulars said, compared with the roughly 5,000 who visit each day, according to the library’s statistics. (There has been a 15 percent drop since March 1, the library said.)
Some seemed to be taking a languorous approach to the crisis. In the northern section of the room, reserved for researchers, one young man was dozing with his head on the table, next to a splayed-open copy of “500 Great Military Leaders of World History.” In another corner, a man was munching contraband doughnuts from a plastic carton. (Food is forbidden.)
But mostly, people were busy, some with the bookish equivalent of the panicked rush that has emptied some grocery stores around town.
“I’m sorry, time is of the essence,” said Lenore Beaky, a retired English professor at LaGuardia Community College, when asked if she had a few minutes to talk.
She relented when asked about the stack of books in front of her, including one called “Heaven: A History.” For the past few moths, she had been coming to the library a few times a week to work on a project that was jump-started by the discovery of a previously unknown letter by Anna Mary Howitt, a 19th-century British feminist she had discussed in her long-ago Ph.D. dissertation.
“I see we’ll have digital access for a lot,” she said of the closure. “But I’m not happy, I’m afraid.”
Tablets and laptops predominated (including some perched on angled, posture-improving lecterns). But some patrons, like Ms. Beaky, had old-fashioned piles of dead-tree matter, wrapped with request slips bearing their names.
One of them, Daniel Winocour, when asked if he was a scholar, shrugged. He has been coming to the library every day, he said, since retiring as a research librarian at the Queens Public Library (that system, along with Brooklyn’s, remains open). Today, he was reading the ancient Greek historian Polybius, in the original, with the help of Liddell and Scott’s famous Greek-English lexicon.
“I have the abridged Liddell and Scott at home,” he said. “But some of the words Polybius uses aren’t in it.”
Mr. Winocour, who has a master’s degree in linguistics, said his main research project concerned the Bronze Age. And oh, he also had a stack of Russian dictionaries. “I’ve been trying to read Chekhov,” he said.
Asked about camaraderie, Mr. Winocour said there were regulars who would sometimes nod at each other in recognition, but generally not a lot of chitchat. Danny Wong, a freelance architect who works there several days a week, seconded the assessment.
“We practice a kind of social distancing already,” Mr. Wong said. “When you come here, you’re in isolation but still in proximity to other people.”
But soon, even more distance would be required. About an hour before the 6 p.m. closing, the sun dipped below the top of the huge arched windows, and golden light came streaming in. One woman in the researcher section, who would give her name only as Alexa, got up to snap some surreptitious smartphone photos and started to leave.
She had just moved to the city from Chicago, and had come in Friday for the first time, looking for interior design books she couldn’t find in any local bookstores. After the closure, she said, she’d be back.
“It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, nobody’s going to bother you,” she said. “What more could you ask for?”
Right before last call, Ms. Beaky returned her stack of books to the desk, where requests are moved up and down from a book bunker underneath Bryant Park via a cute red trolley. “I got through them all,” she said, with a look of relief.
Did she have enough at home to continue her research?
“At first, I was panicked I wouldn’t have enough to do,” she said, slinging her backpack over her shoulder. “But I think it will be O.K.”