I once wrote about two stores sitting within a half block of each other in a city neighborhood. One was a video store, the other a book store. Both were new, well-furnished, modern, efficient. They were roughly the same size and both had opened about the same time.

But there was a big difference. The video store averaged 200 customers a day; the bookstore averaged 10. On good days, the video store rented 600 movies; the bookstore sold about 20 books. On average, the video store brought in $1,000 a day, the book store about $50.I wish I could blame the difference on it being a bad neighborhood for book buying, but it shouldn't have been. The stores were in an area filled with a mix of professionals: lawyers, business people, teachers, grad students.

Still, today the book store is closed and the video store is going strong. That's business, of course. If your product doesn't sell, you can't expect to stay open.

But I'm writing this because we all have an interest in seeing that certain products, like books, do survive; that they do remain available.

In this case, that will happen, because of a special kind of place. Only a block from where the bookstore once stood, there is a neighborhood library.

The mission of libraries has always been simple: to make books available for little or no money. But in this video age, that mission is becoming even more basic: to make books available, period.

That's not to say bookstores are disappearing everywhere. There are still plenty around. But a great percentage are in malls, and most offer limited, homogenized selections. Libraries alone offer a depth of selection, reaching back through the decades. They remain a key weapon against the drift of America toward video.

There are critical reasons why this weapon needs to be strong: Our literacy rate is now lower than places like Korea and Singapore; if we're to compete, we need to build a skilled work force, and I'm convinced the best way is not just through training programs on the job but infusing our young with a love of learning. That springs from a love of reading.

But there's a simpler reason to keep strong the weapon of libraries. Now that I have a child, I see clearly there are far richer messages, far more moral guidance, in books than in video.

We show our daughter plenty of videos, of course; otherwise, we'd never be able to read the paper during breakfast. But one of the richest moments of her week - a moment she's come to look forward to - is a regular visit to a local library for a reading hour.

If that library wasn't there, it would be that much harder to give her one of the most important things any child can have - a love of reading. We seek to teach it to her at home, too, but there's something heightened for a child about being in a place so full of books.

I'm not saying we should be above video. I watch plenty of it now, and as a child I obsessed on shows like "The Man From UNCLE." But such shows never opened new worlds to me. Books did, especially books I discovered on my own in libraries.

It is now a difficult time for libraries. Most are facing cutbacks and closures. They are losing much government money. Soon some of you may hear appeals to help replace that money with your own gifts. When you do, think, if you will, of this quote from John Updike:

"When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in bookstores, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."

I hope that this kind of discovery will happen again and again for my own daughter. I hope, in this difficult time, we'll help make sure this doorway to new worlds will stay open.