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Fiction and food feed a body at the library

By Celia Storey

This article was published February 7, 2013 at 3:07 a.m.

A Garden Burger on wheat roll with salad mix is $4 at the Central Arkansas Library System Main Library's Prose Garden Cafe.

— “No food or drink beyond this point.”

So says a sign between the front doors of the Central Arkansas Library System’s Main Library, a fortress of quiet in the Little Rock River Market District. This library’s a good place to go in search of the wisdom of the ages or the truth that hides in fiction, but that sign’s a liar.

There is food and there are drinks beyond the doors: upstairs, on the fifth floor, in the library’s new Prose Garden Cafe.

“Cafe” is a bit grand. The place sells Guillermo’s coffee, but “snack bar” is more like it.

Still, we can eat while reading. How cool is that?

And your party-of-one, manifestly solo, singleton self can stride in proudly with Kipling or Whomever under one arm and take your seat among a sparse company of equally unpartnered eaters without stirring so much as the hint of a twitch of a mocking eyebrow.

Goodbye, social embarrassment.

Hello, packaged food.

During business hours - 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday - a counter attendant will sell you candy bars, chips, yogurt, nuts, sliced cake or even a frozen Snickers or Twix bar, or assemble a sandwich from a short menu of simple options.

This menu, available at cals.lib.ar.us, includes a “breakfast sandwich” for $2 - from the Jimmy Dean’s line with sausage, egg and cheese on biscuit or croissant; ask to have that microwaved.

A small coffee costs $1 (half that for refills); go large for $1.50 (75 cents per refill).

For lunch, $4 will buy you any of these sandwich fillers on a wheat “baguette” (it’s a big roll) or croissant: Sysco food service chicken salad, pimento cheese spread, a “spicy” breaded chicken patty or a vegetable patty.

The area’s not locked after hours, and two vending machines stand ready to stave off starvation with sodas and snacks. Anything in the snack machine is yours for less than$1; the drinks in the Coca-Cola machine cost $1.50.

You don’t have to check out a library book to read it in the cafe area. You could browse through a pile of books, making up your mind which one you want to take home - while snacking. And if they all prove boring or stupid, there are more books, more books, more books mere steps away.

If that’s not heaven, it’s certainly not hell.

The only catch is you can’t carry food or drinks out of the cafe. No champing Cheetos in the stacks. Warning signs advertise this ban everywhere you look. My favorite is at the counter and includes a drawing of a teal spider with wings: “Be warned!” it says, “Patrons leaving the Prose Garden area with food or drinks may anger Cthulhu.”

But nobody stopped me the day I carried my lunch all the way out of the library, to eat at my desk back at work. The counter attendant swaddled everything in plastic wrap and bagged it for the journey. She also gave me an extra plate, a fistful of napkins and one of the world’s sturdiest plastic forks.

“Did you go to a cafeteria?” my desk mate asked, watching me unwrap the cold chicken salad sandwich on its not-too damp croissant.

The attendant wouldn’t let me buy this sandwich until she was sure I’m not allergic to tree nuts, because the sweet, mayonnaise-heavy mush contains pecans (but also cranberries).

My splurge, a slice of Sarah Lee carrot cake, packed alot of calories for $1.50. Two layers of dark, stiff cake were glued together by a quarter inch of syrup-sweet cream cheese frosting, with another generous quarter-inch waterproofing the top.

Another day, I ate in the cafe. A different attendant prepared my vegetable patty on wheat baguette, microwaving the patty but not the roll. He sliced patty and roll, then he hid the patty pieces under a billow of mixed lettuces.

Lettuce is optional and yet free. Condiments come in plastic packets.

Counting the dollar I spent on a bottle of chilled Ozarka water, lunch was $5 plus tax.

The seating area’s fourtop tables were occupied by studious types camping on their literacy, and although some armchairs nearby looked comfortable, I didn’t want to balance a paper plate on my knees. So I perched at a round pedestal table with an unobstructed view of the cafe’s one inescapable noisemaker, an industrious fountain in the shape of a triangular staircase. Water hurries down its steps to collect in a large box littered with pennies and nickels - deposited, I suppose, by patrons anxious to appease Cthulhu.

When I’d tucked my heels over the rung of a too-low for-me, fixed-height stool, the book I’d checked out for the occasion was too close to my eyes. Anyway, it was boring. So I was free to search the immediate area for truth and wisdom in the form of a different book.

Where else could a downtown luncher do that?

Prose Garden Cafe

Address: Central Arkansas

Library Main Branch, 100

Rock St., Little Rock

Hours: 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Monday-Friday

Cuisine: Sandwiches,

snacks

Credit cards: AE, D, MC,

V

Alcoholic beverages: No

Wheelchair accessible:

Yes

Carryout: Yes

Phone: (501) 918-3023

Weekend, Pages 38 on 02/07/2013

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