Saturday, February 26, 2005

Small Town Libraries

I can safely say that this is the smallest town to have a library:
All but one of Monowi's residents have died or moved. Brisk and unsentimental at 71, Elsie Eiler lives in the one home still fit for living in, a snug trailer with worn white siding. She runs the one business left in Monowi, a dark, wood-paneled tavern, thick with smoke.

She also runs the library.

The sign outside the library is painted on a section of a refrigerator door. The floor is bare plywood. There's no heat. But there are thousands upon thousands of books. "The Complete Works of Shakespeare." "Treasure Island." Trixie Belden and "The Happy Valley Mystery." Zane Grey's westerns, every one of them, lined up across two shelves. Homer. Tennyson. Amy Tan. Goethe.

Elsie Eiler's late husband, Rudy, read them endlessly. He farmed and tended bar, ran a grain elevator, delivered gas to filling stations, and when the town was down to just him and Elsie, he served as mayor, too. But he always found time to read: science fiction, history, the classics — anything but Harlequin romance novels.

When he got sick with cancer two years ago, Rudy confided a dream to Elsie: He wanted to turn his collection into a public library.

Rudy ordered a custom-made building and set it a few steps from his home and his tavern. The Eilers' son, Jack, wired the lights, and friends built floor-to-ceiling shelves. But Rudy died in January 2004, before he could fill them.

Five months later, his friends and family came together to pack the small, white building with his books. Elsie estimates they shelved at least 5,000 volumes.

Monowi, population 1, had its library.

* * *

Nearly 30% of the nation's libraries serve communities of fewer than 2,500 people, including almost 3,000 libraries in towns where the population is measured in the hundreds.

Because they run on volunteer labor, making do with the books at hand, rural libraries survive even in tight times like these, when big cities are shutting branches. In California, John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas (population 150,000) has announced plans to close all of its libraries by April to save money. But it's still possible to check out a book in Gaylord, Kan. (population 97), and Strang, Neb. (population 38).

* * *

Rudy's Library is less than 350 square feet. The books are worn, disorganized and eclectic beyond description.

It's impossible not to linger.

Here's "Ivanhoe," by Sir Walter Scott, next to "Jaws 2." Mark Twain's collected works sit side by side with "Dancer of Dreams" by Patricia Matthews, touted on the cover as "America's First Lady of Love." (That's one of the few Rudy likely never opened.)

Copies of Reader's Digest date back to 1950; National Geographic, to 1953. A local newspaper from 1941 bears the front-page news that Rose Karel's tonsillectomy went well.

The library runs on the honor system: Take what you want, return it when you can.

"You just have to look around 'til you find something you want to read," Elsie says. "You'll probably run across something you're not thinking of."

* * *

Rudy collected these books over a lifetime in love with the printed word.

"He always said he never read any book but he didn't learn from it," Elsie says.

Though he had more books than he could finish, Rudy prowled estate sales and thrift shops, always looking for more. When a community four towns over closed its school, he bought out the whole library — two pickup loads of outdated textbooks and teen novels. As Elsie puts it: "He was forever buying something for a little bit of nothing."

The subject didn't matter to him, as long as it wasn't straight romance. In his last year, he spent hours reading a seed catalog, cover to cover.

"Out here in the sticks, we don't have a lot of things to do," explains Barb Weeder, a friend.

"So if you find something you like to do, you do a lot of it," Elsie adds.
I can't put into words how much I identify with the late Rudy described above. I myself spent hours reading a seed catalog as a youngster, as I too had the habit of reading everything that I could lay hands on.

Stuart Buck


Blogger nshumate said...

That is simply beautiful.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NBC carried the Elsir Eiler story on "Today" this week.
If she wants National Geographic further back than 1953 (per your story) I can take her back to 1920s. How to get all of that there? Have no idea but sounds like she would be worth the expense.
If someone will pass this on to her, she can contact me at
Chuck Mangi in south salem, ny

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said... needs to start a "Read Like Rudy" fund where we can donate funds to double the library in honor of such a selfless act. Imagine how many lives will be changed out of such kindness.

8:33 PM  
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