The Little Library That Could
It all started with an email message from a woman named Koketta Brown on March 23:
“I am working with friends of the Jonesville Library. We are located in Jonesville NC. Our little town is in need of a new library. The town has a poverty rate of 37.4 percent and it's very hard to raise funds in such a high poverty area. We are looking for support from authors like you to do book signings, readings. If u can't donate time to do this we would be grateful to receive a signed copy of your work to auction at a book auction. We already have received a signed work by Owen King and just received a sign copy of The Outsiders by Stephen King. Please help if u can. Thanks for your time.”
I’m a busy author with so many book projects and part-time jobs that I can’t even remember why I walked into my office half the time. So, a bit confused, I wrote back to ask if I knew her from Facebook or how she’d found me. I also told her I lived in San Diego, so I was too far away to come in for a book signing. She replied:
“I actually found you on Facebook. We are trying to get alot of different types of books for our books auction. I am working with a Library friends group to raise money to build a new library. In 2016 we lost our old building to a leak and also 80% of our books due to Black mold. We were blessed to find a temporary location. We believe our community deserves a permanent home for the library. Our town has around 2500 people . . . so we have to draw others from outside our area. The programs we offer the youth in our area incourage them to dream and to believe in themselves. We hope you decide to help.”
Clearly this woman was determined. But it was the poverty level and the “Black mold” that got me. I’ve got frequent allergies issues and had regular shots for mold, dust, grass and pollen for six years, so I know how mold and dust can be especially bad for people with health problems. It’s not good for anyone, really.
So I told her she’d sold me and I agreed to send a couple of signed new books from my closet of books, which I sell from home and at private events. I promptly did so, and also posted a solicitation on Facebook, asking my fellow authors to join me in donating a book or two. Some did, some said they already had.
Koketta said she and the head librarian were very grateful, and they were just so small-town nice, I wanted to help some more somehow. Then they said that the previous head librarian had died of a heart attack at 39, which was just one more bad thing to happen to their little library. Wow, I thought, they have had a lot to deal with in that town.
When Koketta asked for her FB friends to each send $2 donations this week, I shared her post again, and was pleased to see that several of my friends contributed. That’s when it occurred to me, that maybe there was something more I could do. I could write a blog post to show what they’re up against and see if I could really help them out. So here we go…
My very first paid full-time newspaper job was to cover three small towns in rural Western Massachusetts. One had 500 residents, one had 3,500, and one had 10,000. So I know what those small towns are like. They are generally pretty poor and have little in the way of resources, especially for kids. With no real role models, kids and their adult parents can fall into drugs and alcohol, Koketta said, which has definitely been a problem in Jonesville.
The town’s population of 2,500 is also pretty small, and that’s after it annexed the adjacent town of Arlington, across the river from the community of Elkin, where Koketta used to be a 911 dispatcher—before she got MS and had to quit because of the stress.
Koketta and her welder husband live on a 43-acre family-owned farm on the outskirts of town. They have two daughters, one of whom is away at college, studying to be a nurse. The other, who is in high school, wants to be a vet, perhaps, and keeps a miniature pig in her room. They also have two cats, eight dogs, a duck and a chicken. Are all those animals all in the house? I asked.
“We’re in North Carolina, honey, not West Virginia,” she replied.
I laughed. “What do people do in Jonesville on a Saturday night?” I asked.
“Go someplace else,” she said. I laughed again, but this really was no laughing matter, although humor is a good coping mechanism when people are in dire straits.
Koketta said it was the same for people who head off to get a college education. They don’t come back to Jonesville. Some residents have high school educations, she said, and some never finished. That’s why the library is so important. How else are people going to grow their minds?
The average household income is $23,000, she said, and the average house costs $98,000. The biggest employer in the area is PVH, a clothing manufacturing that makes the expensive Tommy Hilfiger line for fashion-conscious people with money. You might think that such a corporation would help out the town or the library financially, Koketta said, but it hasn’t.
The town of Jonesville is a whopping 1.9 square miles, and doesn’t really have a downtown. The area where the previous library had been was the closest thing to a downtown, but the buildings there, built somewhere around the 1960s, fell into disrepair. Which is what happened with the little old library in 2015.
There was a lot of rain that year, and a leak was discovered in May. But it wasn’t until the fall that the former librarian, Barbara “Doobie” Gilpin, noticed that the paneling in the children’s section was bowing. When she saw mold growing on the paneling, and touching the books, she moved the books away from the leaky walls.
On closer inspection, she found mold was not just growing on the walls, but in the books, where she found actual mushrooms between the pages. (I’m still waiting for a photo of that.) At some point, they discovered that there were holes in the roof, and that the water had actually gone in between the walls.
The problem was, by the time she figured this out it was too late. In the cost of lost books alone, it was $150,000 too late.
They called in a mold expert, who found three or four different types, including the heinous black stuff that can make people pretty sick. So in December 2015, they had to move out of that building and into a donated building nearby, where a mold expert was paid $1,500 to come in, set up a decontamination area, and oversee the “cleaning” process.
“The library itself wasn’t a great loss, but the worst were the books, and the fact that it happened so suddenly,” Koketta said. “And it was all in one moment. That’s what it felt like. We had to move and we had to move quickly, to get everything out.”
Barbara and her small staff put on respirators and plastic gloves and went through the collection of nearly 20,000 books, most of which had to be thrown out for public health reasons. The remaining 20 percent of so were “cleaned,” whatever that means, and according to Koketta, the swipe testing showed they were safe to use.
I’m sorry, but I find that a little hard to believe knowing that mold spores can fly into the air, land, and grow on other surfaces, including “clean” books, but Koketta assured me that the remaining books were OK. She said they have not done any testing recently, however, which I would certainly encourage. Especially after Barbara, the former librarian, died in September 2018 at age 39, apparently of a heart attack.
But before that, when they were done cleaning books, they had very few left. And no permanent building. One of the workers filed a labor complaint with the library system because of the health hazards from the mold, Koketta said, because the government agency wasn’t doing much to help out at the time. The system encompasses 13 libraries across three counties, which are not as bad off as Jonesville.
“It seems that Jonesville was more or less destroyed during the Civil War and never recovered,” she said.
They moved into a donated building, now owned by the urgent care center next door, that was rent-free for six months. The 3,000-square-foot space, formerly an auto parts store, has a concrete floor painted royal blue and pegboards on the wall that they can’t take down. They found some carpet remnants to put down for the kids to sit on during “Wiggle Worm Wednesdays” story time, and this has become their temporary home. The rent is now $700 a month.
In such a low-income area, it’s not surprising that the fundraising has been slow. About $30,000 was collected in the first three years, which is still miles away from the $200,000 they need to break ground on a new building. But first they need to hire an architect to draw up plans, so they can apply for grant applications. And all of that takes money.
Since Koketta joined the Friends group in December and started running the fundraising effort, the group has raised an additional $5,000. After book drives and donations, the collection is up about 8,000 now, but they still need more to line those empty shelves.
As a former 911 operator who had some of the same training as a police officer, Koketta is an enterprising woman who clearly wants to do public service. Her goal now is to help her community by rebuilding this library. But it’s more than that, it’s her avocation.
“If I can use my time to help our community to become better for the kids growing up… provide stability and show them work ethic and morality… if we can do that through a library… then I am meeting a purpose in life. That is my purpose.”
That means she is doing everything she can to “think out of the box,” including putting a “wishing well” outside the front door of the library and writing 300 authors like me to beg for help.
Well, it’s working. An elderly woman, who was a regular patron, came in and handed over a check for $250 in January.
“I wish I could help more, but this is all I can do,” she said.
“This is amazing, this is what we need everyone who can do it to do,” Koketta replied.
In addition to the books from Stephen King and his son Owen, who is also an author, the Friends group received $200 from David Pelzer, the author of the memoir “A Child Called ‘It’,” as well as four boxes of graphic novels from an author in Los Angeles. All told, between 50 and 75 authors, including me, and my fellow crime writers Ron Franscell and Kathryn Casey, have sent books so far.
Koketta says they are grateful for these donations, and with the added support of the town and the library system now, “for the first time in a long time, it feels as if the stars have aligned and everyone is working together to make this happen.”
So, now that this has become a little bit of pet project for me too, I ask all of you readers, writers and published authors out there, can you help? Koketta is looking for signed books from authors to auction off to raise money, but she also wants “any books” in good condition for the collection itself. And donations by cash or check are always welcome.
You can contact her by email at email@example.com, and send books or donations to her at Jonesville Library, attention Koketta Brown, 560 Winston Road, Jonesville, NC 28642.
And thanks for reading the blog!