PEMBROKE — After extensive roof repairs and a general spruce-up, it’s business as usual at Virginia’s smallest library.
Librarian Clara Robertson, 84, has set aside two bags full of westerns for one patron and is checking out a book for Stanley Montgomery. She picks up an index card with his name on it and writes “checked out one book.” No title. No card number. No computer.
“I know him — he planted the tomatoes out front,” Robertson said. “He’s in here using the computer almost every day. He’ll bring that book back.”
In her 27 years of running the Pembroke Library, Robertson knows the drill. She also knows how her patrons operate.
“They bring their books back in two weeks or they don’t bring them back at all,” she said. “Most return them. The other ones I can call and call, but I don’t get any results.”
“But that’s okay — they’re all donated books. I’ve learned to live with it,” Robertson added.
Virginia’s smallest operating library is 270 square feet, about the size of a bookmobile. It holds almost 4,000 books, a few movies, a pile of recycled magazines and two computers. Only the computers arrived new.
“When we received our computers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a trainer came along to teach me how to use them,” Robertson said. “I had to help people at first. But we’ve had two upgrades since, and now everyone who comes in knows how to use a computer, most better than I do.”
Robertson, a Pembroke native, became the town librarian in 1991 while also working in the Giles High School cafeteria. She took over from her daughter, Linda Richardson, who managed the library for a year.
“My husband had just died and I needed to supplement my income,” Robertson said. “I worked both jobs for many years, sometimes with help from a friend. But mostly it’s been just me. When I had emergency surgery two years ago, the library closed down for a month.”
Pembroke Library also shuts down when temperatures hit 20 or below. Built in the early 1880s to house the town post office, the building isn’t insulated. It is warmed only by two small electric heaters. In the summer, a fan pulls air through the open front door. There is no bathroom, no telephone, and the library is open only 12 hours a week: Monday through Thursday, 11a.m. to 2 p.m.
Originally, the building sat on Snidow Street beside the old Pembroke Hotel. It became the town library in 1975. When the hotel was razed in 1988, Celco Community Credit Union agreed to let the library move to its lot on Cascade Drive. So the little library was hoisted onto a flatbed and plopped down between town hall and the credit union.
The library’s top shelf is lined with books nearly as old as the building itself, including a few first editions. Most of the library, however, is devoted to mysteries, romances, westerns, children’s literature and inspirational books, with volumes of literary fiction, history and nonfiction thrown into the mix.
“Paperback mysteries, westerns, and romances — that’s what people check out most here,” Robertson said. “Some of our readers will buy a stack of paperbacks and donate them to us almost new.”
Robertson knows the tastes of her individual patrons so well that she fills bags with books they will like. She has her Zane Grey people and her Louis L’Amour people and her Danielle Steele people. Most of them know each other, although the tiny library has no formal book group.
“Some are my ‘bag customers’ — I’ve known them long enough to be sure they’ll be back here every few days. They can take out whole bags at a time,” Robertson said.
Harvey Kirk is a “bag customer” of long standing. Although he’s now too disabled to make it up the library’s front steps, Robertson meets him out front to hand him her bag of carefully selected westerns and ranch novels.
“My grade school teacher got me started,” Kirk said. “She’d read us a chapter every day. I was hooked. I had to get my own books.”
Kirk says he’s read every western in the library and is branching into novels featuring cowboys and ranch life. A life member of the Pembroke Fire Department, Kirk also enjoys books on firefighting.
“I like to read in my truck,” Kirk says. “I’ll park across from the library and read for four, five, six, sometimes nine hours a day.”
Recently, the community of about 1,000 came together to make major improvements to the little library. With donations from Celco and the Pembroke Women’s Club, the library had its leaky roof and sagging porches repaired and received a new coat of exterior paint, a new sign, new blue willow print curtains and two designated parking spaces. Youth groups have helped with painting and rearranging. The Boy Scouts soon will apply a second coat of paint.
Pemtel already donates Internet service and faxing capabilities, while the women’s club has maintained the library and been responsible for its day-to-day equipment repairs since its founding.
“The town needed a library, and when the building became available, the women’s club decided it was the way to go,” said Liz Shaver, a leader in the Pembroke Women’s Club. “I think the RALLY [Southwest Virginia community revitalization grant program] this year prompted people to step up and do whatever they could for the town and the library.”
“It looks really nice now,” Robertson said. “And that’s important. It’s kind of a tourist attraction. So many times I’ll see a car with an out-of-state license plate pull up out front. Somebody will roll down the window and stick out a camera. If I have the doors open, I’ll lean back so I’m not in the picture, but sometimes they’ll come inside and take my picture anyway. I want them to know it’s the smallest library in Virginia, but I don’t have anything to do with that.”