Community library is at the heart of Sue Halpern’s new novel

RIPTON — Sue Halpern loves libraries. She likes spending time in them. She co-founded one.
And now she has written a novel about a fictional library that serves as a transformative backdrop for camaraderie and healing among a group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have looked twice at one another.
It’s called “Summer Hours at the Robbers Library” and is the Ripton resident’s third novel. She completed it around two years ago and let it sit on the shelf for a while — not out of a lack of enthusiasm about the final product, but because she found herself taking on a flurry of other literary assignments. Halpern is a well-known, well-respected non-fiction writer and journalist. Her articles are routinely published in the New Yorker and New York Times. Let’s just say that national and world events during the past year-and-a-half have merited a lot of her ink.
“Robbers” waited patiently in line for its release this month. Halpern will officially launch it during an appearance at Middlebury’s Vermont Book Shop on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 6:30 p.m.
Halpern drew her “Robbers” inspiration from two sources, beginning with her interest in the subject of how human beings cope with physical trauma. The relevancy of trauma becomes clear in “Robbers.” We won’t spoil that plot detail here.
The other impetus for the book was her past experience with literature — not only as an author, but as a founder of the first public library in the township of Johnsburg, located in the Adirondacks region of New York state.
“I was thinking about how that library was transformative for the town and for the people in the town,” she recalled of her Johnsburg experience. “It became, and still is, a place where people who would ordinarily not know each other, and not have a lot to do with each other, came in contact with each other — to good effect.”
“Robbers” plays out, with at times dramatic and humorous effect, inside the mythical “Robbers Library” in Riverton. Head Librarian Kit and Sunny — an inquisitive and authority-challenging youth — are the pillar characters of the novel, though they have a great supporting cast.
There’s a collection of four older men for whom the library has become a daily ritual. “The Four,” as they are known, weigh in with words of advice and occasional comic relief in between perusing periodicals.
There’s Rusty, described as a “Wall Street high-flyer suddenly crashed to earth.”
“I really tried to imagine what it must have been like to go from thinking you’re on top of the world because you were making tons of money and stuff … and to have all of that pulled from underneath you,” Halpern said. “How would you go about figuring out what to do next?”
There’s Evelyn Mosher, the “permanently grumpy” circulation clerk.
All play a role in shaping the greater story of Kit and Sunny, two people with divergent interests and personalities who ultimately forge a deep bond and help each other overcome adversity.
Solstice “Sunny” Arkinsky is 15, and her parents are hippies. A judge sentences Sunny to 10 weeks of mandatory service at Robbers Library as punishment for swiping a dictionary.
She becomes Kit’s protégé, much to her and Sunny’s initial chagrin. Kit is a character who was quite content keeping her thoughts to herself — a goal greatly facilitated by the library’s code of silence.
“The library is a place where you can be by yourself, yet still be in a social setting,” Halpern said.
And like Rusty, Kit was on a trajectory that was “blown to bits” by a traumatic event.
“I had this idea of putting these three people — Kit, Sunny and Rusty — who were very different and would have had nothing to say to each other in a different setting, into this room together to see what happened when they interacted with each other,” Halpern said.
What they became, according to Halpern, was a “random family.”
“It was this idea you could find this family in the people you felt closest to, in a place like a library,” Halpern said. “How did that happen?”
She saw random families form quite often at Johnsburg Library — a story unto itself.
Johnsburg township, population of around 2,300, had for years been served by a bookmobile. That service was discontinued during the early 1990s by the library consortium that ran it.
Local leaders pitched a tax to provide library services to the community. But voters — feeling over-taxed — shot down the proposal.
Johnsburg selectboard members then found $15,000 in the town budget and asked Halpern and two local retirees to turn it into a library.
“It was very much like (the movie) ‘Field of Dreams’ or trying to turn water into wine,” Halpern recalled.
But with help, the group recruited a part-time librarian and secured a library space in the back of the town hall, in which they set up shelves with approximately 3,000 books culled from the library consortium in Saratoga Springs.
The group also acquired the inventory from a local video store that had gone out of business.
Optimistically, the library organizers ordered 500 library cards trusting that if they built the library, patrons would come.
“The people with whom we consulted said it would take us about a year to go through our 500 cards, because we figured there were around 1,800 people,” Halpern said.
“We went through the cards in three weeks.”
Halpern wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the Johnsburg Library effort that appeared the day the new facility opened in 1996. The theme of the op-ed: in order to get chartered as a public library by the state of New York, the new amenity needed two computers.
“There was no requirement for books,” Halpern said. “How crazy was that? We had these 3,000 books, but we didn’t have enough money for computers.”
The CEO of a large database company in Florida saw Halpern’s op-ed and promptly donated three computers and a free database subscription to the fledgling library.
“We had the equivalent of a large research library in our town hall,” Halpern said, with a smile. “And all these publishers started sending us books. Before long, we had this thriving library.”
It became a place — like fictional Riverton — where people showed up to read and associate. Patrons started a movie night, a discussion series and theater readings.
“(The new library) became the commons for this town, where almost half of the downtown was boarded up,” Halpern recalled. “It just changed everything. It changed people’s sense of pride in their town. It put people in contact with each other who otherwise wouldn’t have known each other. It put books in the hands of people who weren’t necessarily readers. It brought people in because they wanted their children to be readers. Everything happened in the library.”
Some of the social dynamics of this real-life story play out in fictional form in Riverton.
“It healed the town,” Halpern said of the Johnsburg library. “The town was really failing — not unlike the town in the book. When the library showed up, it became this central point for people, I think it made them much more willing to see the good in helping other people, because they saw it was helping them.
“The library is this place of great possibility,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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