Shelf life


Income: $39,035 (1999)

Health Insurance: covered by employer

Rent: $453/mo.

Utilities: $25/mo.

Phone: $70/mo.

Food: $200/mo.

Transportation: $63/mo.

I always wanted to be like the kids in the E.L. Konigsburg story who’ve had it with being misunderstood so they run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum and sleep in historic beds and get their money from the coins in the fountain which they use to buy food in the Museum cafeteria. I’ve always loved the idea of living in an ideal space, free of charge, surrounded by endless intellectual stimulation.”

Andrea Copeland, now 29, is a librarian surrounded by books at the New York Public Library. With a job at the Donnell branch on 52nd Street, she can live it up like a Konigsburg child and eat at the CBS employee cafeteria next door where tuna sandwiches cost $2.50 and chocolate chip cookies a quarter.

“Everybody from my staff eats there: one from reference, one from world languages, one from young adult. When we have large library meetings, sometimes 40 people go. They don’t check IDs. The MOMA staff across the street eats there too.”

Librarians are not rolling in money. “In New York it’s especially frustrating. New York public librarians earn $5000 below the national average. Even though we have lots of money for books, there’s not enough for salaries. We can’t keep our staff. We’ve been requesting more money for years. The mayor just says we need to work longer and harder.

“So I have to be thrifty. Especially when you have student loans like I do.” Copeland, raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia— her father was an air-traffic controller— got her library science master’s degree from Florida State.

Copeland has her economic strategies. She shops at Costco in Brooklyn— a space almost as stimulating as the Metropolitan Museum— with its wide-ranging stock: bananas, computer equipment, and Kurt Andersen’s new novel. “I get 50 pounds of cat litter for six bucks, 24 two-pound cans of dog food for $18, two gallons of shampoo for $7.” She needs giants to lift it.

Copeland owns a one-bedroom co-op in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, that cost only $20,000. “It’s designed for middle-income people. The tricky thing is, if you make too much, you can’t buy into the building. But it’s hard to finance through a bank, because usually a bank won’t give you a mortgage for less than $25,000. I was told right off that I pretty much needed cash even though I only made 30-something a year. I had a very wealthy friend who lent me the money. He’s 60. I met him at an AIDS organization in Florida. Thank God for the gay men in my life. I’m not that close with my own nuclear family. So I’ve cultivated my own family. It happens to be composed mainly of gay men. My next-door neighbors are gay. They are unbelievably generous.”

Copeland is married to a gay man, though they do not live together or share finances. “He loaned me $2000 recently and saved my life. We thought about getting married for the benefits. We did live together for many years. I date other people. We’re very, very close. He’s moving back in with me in the fall for a while so we can save money.

“I’ve also saved by consolidating all my credit-card debts into one bank loan. You get a lower interest rate. In the last seven years, I came to owe $11,000. Last year, I got it down to about $7000.”

Copeland may go back to school to get an education degree. “But at heart, I’m a librarian. I see public libraries as the cornerstone of democracy. I like helping people be informed. There is a certain beauty in controlling one’s own destiny.” Her destiny? “I’m a dedicated public servant. I’ll probably cap out at the most at $60,000 when I’m 50— if I’m lucky. Then when I’m old? I sort of see myself in Costa Rica in a shack with all kinds of books and smoking whatever to ease the pain.”