Residents Scrounge Shelves (and Books) to Create a Library in an Old Jail

A Letter from Bluff, Utah

July 12, 1992|By DOUG BIRCH

BLUFF, UTAH — Bluff, Utah. -- In the old town jail, within earshot of the tractor-trailers and recreational vehicles that grind along Route 163, stands Bluff's recently-opened symbol of hope, self-reliance and defiance -- a one-room public library.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Pat Cook called up her friend and neighbor Rosalie Goldman, proprietor of the Bluff Bed and Breakfast, and said she was sick of driving 25 miles to Blanding and back just to return a book. Sure, the county had a bookmobile, but it stopped by only once every two weeks and carried a limited selection. And the people of the nearby Navajo reservation had no library of their own.

Let's build one, Ms. Cook said.

Bluff, population 250, sits amid the scrub brush of the San Juan River Valley just a few miles north of the Arizona border. The Navajo reservation, which sprawls across the four corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, sits just across the boisterous and muddy river.

The unincorporated town already boasted nightly slide shows on the region's geography and history at the Recapture Lodge. Tourists like to stop by at the hilltop pioneer cemetery to read the tombstones. And there was the "Bluff City Historic Loop," consisting of a few signs describing the Victorian homes of the town's founding families.

What better way for the 112-year-old community to cement its claim as southern San Juan County's cultural capital than to build its own cathedral of knowledge: a library?

The county already had libraries in its two major towns further north, Blanding and Monticello, the county seat. Ms. Goldman said she and Ms. Cook didn't ask the county to open a third library in Bluff because, "it just never occurred to us. It certainly never occurred to them to open a branch here. So we decided to do it ourselves."

The founding mothers also feared that officials in this heavily Mormon, culturally conservative county might have tried to keep racy novels or controversial non-fiction off the shelves. "We may be the only county library offering books on birth control and abortion," Ms. Goldman said.

Folks in the Bluff area sometimes see things differently than their neighbors up the road.

For one thing, about half the residents of greater Bluff are Navajo. While native American causes aren't always popular in the north county, Bluff recently helped elect Mark Maryboy to the three-member county commission -- making him the first Native American ever to hold county elective office, Ms. Goldman said.

For another, Bluff seems an oasis of the eccentric and laid-back in a generally strait-laced area. There's the locally-famous Cow Canyon restaurant, with it's trendy menu that includes spanakopita -- known to us Easterners as Greek spinach pie, but portrayed in the menu as a "Polish taco." There's the steady stream of scruffily-dressed river rafters, hikers and others who trudge through town during the summers. And, of course, there's the combative and charming Ms. Goldman herself, a sixitish dynamo and former Chicagoan who moved here 20 years ago.

In the 1960s, she and her husband lived in Chicago and planned to escape the big city and live amid the slickrock and sagebrush in southern Utah.

"We were both very familiar with this area, we had been hikers and backpackers into the canyon wilderness for many, many years," she said. But Mr. Goldman died before they could make the move. "We had planned to come together. I had to come alone," she said. Six years ago, she opened her bed and breakfast inn on the north edge of town, just off the road that heads east toward the Anasazi ruins at Hovenweep.

When she joined the library effort, Ms. Goldman turned to her friends in town and former B&B guests, who live all over the country. They've responded by donating scores of books from their private libraries. The public library in Farmington, New Mexico, a center for Navajo culture, twice gave her pickup-truckloads of surplus books.

Now the library has about 1,000 cataloged books on the shelves and another 1,500 in storage waiting to be cataloged.

When Ms. Goldman needed a children's book corner, she found a merchant willing to donate a surplus display shelf. The rest of the library's hardwood shelves came from a public school that was renovating.

"We scrounged," she said. "It wasn't just offered. We had to hunt and hunt for everything."

Ms. Goldman and Ms. Cook persuaded the county to let them have the tiny jail house, abandoned for nine years after a judge ruled prisoners couldn't be held there longer than a few hours. Sociology students at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City -- who normally spend summers working on the nearby reservation -- helped renovate the badly deteriorated building. They recruited other students from the University of Southern California and Fordham University to help hammer, plaster and paint.

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