Checking out the shelf life at the Simpson Memorial Library
In Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 film The Trouble With Harry, residents of a small Vermont town discover a dead body in a local park. The black comedy was shot in part in the Northeast Kingdom town of Craftsbury; film buffs may recognize Craftsbury Common's signature town green.
But a venue more in tune with the film's eerie sensibilities is actually a few miles up the road in East Craftsbury. It's the John Woodruff Simpson Memorial Library. In addition to its 20,000 books and periodicals, the library boasts a collection of exotic curios that includes an ostrich egg, Chinese opium scales and a buttonhook fashioned from a soup bone by Philadelphia prisoner "No. 3369."
These artifacts once belonged to the library's founder, Jean Walker Simpson, who died in 1980. Her feisty spirit still seems to linger among the odd antiquities. The wealthy, worldly Simpson established the library in 1921, filling it with items she brought from her home next door. She named it for her father, who died in 1920.
The Simpson Memorial Library is run by a nonprofit corporation, and is sustained by Simpson's generous endowment. Anyone can wander in to check out a book or admire the displays. But history buffs, literature lovers and daydreamers should take note: The place is open just three days a week, and then only during certain hours. Librarian Sherry Urie unlocks the door on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 9 a.m. She stays until noon, when she goes home for lunch. She returns from 2 until 5, then goes home for dinner. She reopens for night hours from 7 until 9:30. A sign out front says the library is also open from 12:15-1:30 p.m. on Sundays, though the soft-spoken librarian suggests it's more like noon to 1.
That schedule might seem strange, but Urie says it worked well when this was a solidly agricultural community, full of farming families with lots of kids. The 60-year-old native Vermonter remembers those days. Though she lived for a time in Burlington, and received an English degree from the University of Vermont, Urie grew up and now lives nearby; her brother works the family dairy farm in Glover. Urie assumed her post here in 1985.
She remembers coming here as a small child, after services at the Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. Sunday, after all, was the perfect day for reading. "That was all you could do on Sunday," Urie recalls with a chuckle. The Craftsbury public library existed when she was growing up, but she never made it there. "Travel was very different years ago," she explains.
Jean Simpson started her library to foster a love of learning in the small town, according to Urie. "She was very, very interested in education and knowledge and reading for pleasure," she says.
Urie vividly recalls Simpson, or, as she calls her, "Miss Jean." The nickname distinguished her from her cousin Mary Jean Simpson, who once served as the dean of women at UVM.
Jean Simpson was an only child. Her father was a New York lawyer whose clients included the Carnegies. Her mother, Kate Seney Simpson, was an art lover, a patron of Rodin who modeled for the French sculptor and purchased works from him and other artists. She later donated them to the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Born in the late 1890s, Simpson grew up in an apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. Private tutors taught her to speak six languages and to read Greek and Latin. She traveled worldwide and had a passion for art. Photographer Edward Steichen was a friend; the Smithsonian American Art Museum owns a portrait he took of her in 1923.
But Simpson also had deep Vermont roots; her grandfather immigrated to Greensboro from Scotland in 1830. He ran a profitable general store in East Craftsbury, in what would later become the library. Jean visited Vermont often as a child, and eventually moved into a house beside the old store, which closed in 1913.
Urie remembers the unmarried woman as a community fixture. She taught Sunday school, funded and led Urie's Girl Scout troop, and spent extravagantly on sets and costumes for local productions of abbreviated Shakespeare plays. Most of those props and outfits are housed in the library's attic; Urie still loans some of them to schools and community theaters.
A striking black-and-white photo in the children's reading room attests to Simpson's love of theater. It shows her dressed as Hamlet, wearing a metal helmet, a suit of chain mail, and a resolute expression; she played the title role in one Craftsbury production. Urie doesn't have a picture of Simpson in another of her roles -- each year for Craftsbury's Old Home Day, she mounted her own horse-drawn chariot and rode around the common dressed in a Roman toga.
Urie testifies that Simpson's love of the classics pervaded her daily routine. "Every time she got into the car," the librarian remembers, "she would slap the wheel and say, 'Go Bucephalus!' That was the horse of Alexander the Great."
Colorful stories aside, Simpson's real legacy is her marvelous little library; Urie graciously agrees to open the modest clapboard-covered building to a reporter for a private Thursday morning tour. Walk inside and you're greeted by books both old and new, on shelves that once held the inventory of the Simpson General Store. With its ivy-patterned wallpaper, old-fashioned card catalogue and ornate wooden chairs, the front room resembles a period set, but the literary inventory is current -- hardcovers by James Patterson, Lisa Scottoline and Sebastian Junger sit on a cart next to Urie's desk. The library holds about 20,000 books, and acquires 300 new ones each year.
With limited floor space, some of the older, less popular titles are moved to the attic, or to a back room where Urie offers them for sale. "I pretty much have to discard a book for every one I bring in," she confesses. "It's bad."
Fortunately, Urie is not willing to ditch any of the collectibles to gain shelf space. Though regular patrons might overlook the random objects, they're sure to capture the attention of first-time visitors. It's not often you come across "A Fan from Biskra, the city in an Oasis in the Desert of Sahara," or a blue feather "presented by Salee Smith, princess of the Cherokee Indians." Other highlights from the collection include a miniature Bible and a basket made from an armadillo shell.
These artifacts inspired at least one local boy to see the world for himself. Urie tells the story of John M. Heidger, who grew up next door to the library. He later served in Vietnam, and worked as a circus animal trainer. Last Urie heard, he was leading tours of the Everglades in Florida. Years ago, Heidger donated some of his own finds to the library to acknowledge its early influence on him. His loot sits atop the bookshelves in the children's reading room; the jagged open maw of a stuffed pirhana looms over a stack of jigsaw puzzles.
Urie volunteers that some of Heidger's pieces came from headhunters, though she's certain that the small, blackened skull atop a wicker headpiece isn't human. "It's a monkey skull," she insists.
These ghoulish animal remains apparently haven't deterred the community from gathering here. The Craftsbury Chamber Players rehearse in the library during off hours; folks stop by to talk politics most Saturday nights; and everyone likes to play table tennis in what Urie calls "the Ping-Pong Room."
"A lot of people who come in just enjoy being in the library," she says. "It makes a great place for people to visit with each other, and just have a very pleasant time."
Circulation isn't what it once was, Urie concedes -- she's lending about 6000 books a year, down from a peak of near 39,000. But she says Simpson's endowment will allow the library to remain open "pretty much forever, if we're careful." Urie predicts there will always be a use for it. "As long as people read books," she says, "it should survive."