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The Commons
Photo 1

Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

The Children's Room at the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro recently got renovated.


50 fabulous years for Brooks Memorial Library

All-day celebration marks golden anniversary of current building

Joyce Marcel frequently contributes to these pages and, by way of full disclosure, also serves as president of the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library.

Originally published in The Commons issue #425 (Wednesday, September 13, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

BRATTLEBORO—For 175 years, Brattleboro has enjoyed a love affair with books.

“Since 1842, Brattleboro readers have been privileged to borrow books,” begins the 1965 prospectus for a new, modern, $560,000 library building on Main Street that would open on Sept. 23, 1967.

It’s your 50th birthday, Brooks Memorial Library building!

In celebration, the Trustees of Brooks Memorial Library, the staff, and the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library are throwing a big party for the public on Sept. 23 — the very day the library opened 50 years earlier.

The library itself goes back even further. It is named after one of Brattleboro’s most colorful characters, George J. Brooks, who gave the town its first library building way back in 1887.

Brooks was described this way in the prospectus:

“[The money] was given by a bachelor who spent his boyhood in Chesterfield, N.H., clerked in stores in Brattleboro, farmed in Illinois, and made his fortune in a wholesale paper business on the West Coast in the ’gold fever’ years, and the building Mr. Brooks constructed and presented to the town was described as ‘beautiful and commodious.’

“At its opening it housed a collection of about 5,000 volumes. The impressive dedication ceremonies took place on Jan. 25, 1887, a month after the town’s benefactor died unexpectedly of a heart attack, a draft of his dedication speech on his desk.”

Make way for the Post Office

The old library building reached full capacity in 1965, just about the time the federal government decided it needed the property to expand the post office parking lot. The government bought and demolished the old building while a committee was formed to oversee the funding and construction of a new one nearby.

The architect chosen was Hartford, Conn., resident Frederick J. Mahaffey, who died at the age of 85 in 2011. Mahaffey spent his early years working for famed architect Edward Durrell Stone before starting his own firm specializing in institutional buildings — schools, hospitals, libraries, and corporate offices.

The building that Mahaffey designed for Brattleboro is notable for its large glass windows fronting on Main Street, its street-level entrance on Main Street and its easily-accessed stacks. The building has recently received a face-lift that included new meeting rooms, new rugs, and new and updated bathrooms.

Thirty years after the library was built, Mahaffey revisited the building and spent time talking to the then-Library Director Jerry Carbone.

Mahaffy later wrote: “I was pleased to see how well the original appearance inside and out, had held up ... I see that the good quality standards that were used — the windows, the brickwork, the steel and concrete structure — all look very good. There is a long building life ahead.”

Carbone said that after the building opened, “circulation of materials increased by 20 percent in its first full year and, eventually, after 50 years, it was filled to capacity with not only books, but audio cassettes, video cassettes, books on tape, microfilm, and CD-ROM. Of the many things listed here, only the book continues as a viable format into the future. The other formats have been replaced by other technology.”

Elevator rides

While the library might not have been the first “modern” flat-roofed building built on Main Street, Carbone said it was one of the very few to have a public elevator.

“The library elevator was used as an amusement ride by kids coming to the children’s room,” Carbone said. “In fact, when the library opened, a notice had to be painted on the elevator door — ‘adult use only’ — to discourage the riding of it from first to third floors by the kids.”

Celebratory events will continue all day on Sept. 23. In the morning, a children’s celebration begins at 10 a.m. with a crafts table where the kids can make birthday cards. It continues with a one-man show by Kevin O’Keefe, followed by cake and singing “Happy Birthday” from 11:30 to noon.

In the afternoon, it will be time for the adults to have some fun.

Events begin at 1 p.m., with music from the late 1960s performed by Sharon Leslie and Dan Kasnitz. Current town manager Peter Elwell and Corwin “Corky” Elwell, long-time town manager who was in office when the new library building was being designed and built, will offer remarks.

Carbone will then give a brief history of the library.

The special guest speaker is Amy Dickinson, advice columnist, humorist, author, and panel member of NPR’s popular news quiz program “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!” She will speak about the importance of stories and libraries in her own family.

“I grew up hearing stories about my ancestors’ exploits,” Dickinson said. “My great-grandfather was warden of Sing Sing prison [in Ossining, N.Y.] and my great uncle ran off to Europe and joined the circus when he was 40. Life in my hometown was like growing up in Lake Wobegon, only with worse weather and high unemployment.”

Dickinson’s second memoir, Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home, was just released. Thanks to a donation from the Friends, 52 signed copies of the books will be given away, one per family, first come, first served.

After her talk, there will be food, with singing and dancing to music provided by the Wyld Nightz Trio with Jeff Brewer. BCTV will be on hand to record library reminiscences. For further information, call the library at 802-254-5290.

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