Mary's Farm: The Most Important Building in Town
I have a longtime love of libraries, reaching back to when my mother would leave me off at our town library while she did errands elsewhere. I was there in that library by myself, which in itself gave me a sense of freedom, but, I also learned, the books that rested on those mahogany shelves could also take me just about anywhere.
And so I’m happy when I’m invited to libraries to read from my work. These ventures take me to a variety of places, from grand city libraries, all echoing marble and mosaic-tile floors, to little libraries in towns I’ve sometimes never heard of. One winter, for instance, I traveled to Post Mills, Vermont (an outpost of the larger town of Thetford, population 2,617). From the outside, the library was small, wooden, with white clapboards, black trim, and slender pillars holding up the gable front. A painted sign swung from hooks on a post near the road: Peabody Library. I parked, tight beside snowbanks, and crept up the icy path to the shelter of the porch, lit by a single bulb. I opened one of the double doors and stepped directly into the 19th century.
The room was long and wide, with a high ceiling and a stairway on either side, leading to a balcony lined with old books, spines dark brown and solemn, with new best-sellers near the front desk. In front of me was a very long library table, not unlike a banquet table, and around it sat a good number of people, mostly women–some young, some older, some ancient–all regarding me with curiosity and warmth. They welcomed me and indicated that they’d saved me the seat at the head of the table. I made my way past the stacks to the throne-like chair. I looked around me at the ornate woodwork, railings, and figural enhancements, all freshly painted and polished. I felt totally embraced by this little temple and all it held inside.
As I began to read, the lights were somewhat dim, giving the feeling of a séance or the meeting of a secret society. Many of the women were busily knitting or doing needlework, so their heads were bent over their work as if in prayer. Occasionally, they’d look up to smile or laugh, encouraging me with their eyes. At the end, they asked questions, and we sat and talked as if we’d all just shared a good meal together.
The evening came to a slow end, as everyone there was suitably proud of the library and gave me a brief rundown of its history. All around me, there was no shortage of love for or pride in this unique place. I crept home along icy roads to New Hampshire, suddenly curious why libraries exist at all in this new world of the Internet and books downloaded to Kindles. In the current economic and technological climate, I wondered what keeps a library like that alive.
In the case of the Peabody Library, the answer is (somewhat) simple. Above the door, I’d seen a huge, gilt-framed portrait of a man in a three-piece suit, hand inside his vest in Napoleonic stance. I’d learned that he was George Peabody, the man who’d endowed this building and its upkeep even to the present day, even though he’d spent only one boyhood winter with his maternal grandfather and a beloved uncle and aunt in Post Mills. He’d never returned, but he’d felt strongly enough about that place to give the townspeople that long-lasting gift. Similarly (though on a larger scale), many other libraries in New England and elsewhere are funded by Andrew Carnegie’s devotion to the idea of public libraries. But most libraries exist on taxpayers’ money, which varies widely with each town.
Libraries in New England lead stubborn existences. I know of one library that’s set up in what would otherwise be a home’s downstairs living room. When you go in, you ring the bell and the woman of the house will come down and take care of you. Once when I went there, her hair was in curlers.
I recently went over to the little library in a neighboring town and asked for a certain book. The librarian didn’t have it handy, so she asked me to wait while she drove home to get it. On her way out, she locked the door and flipped the sign from Open to Closed. Another one-room affair, this library had invested in computers, which sat blinking, and new titles, which lined the oaken bay window. A wide selection of magazines were fanned out beside them.
I sat in the rocking chair by the window and read while I waited for the librarian to return. I didn’t mind being locked in; it was warm in there. I thought it would be a lovely place to spend an afternoon.