This is a success story. This is Field of Dreams for book lovers. It's the tale of two bibliophiles and their devotion to the intersection of the printed word and the land, a devotion that led to amassing an eclectic, comprehensive collection that starts with nature and man's relation to it and radiates outward into a multitude of disciplines. It's the story of the Rocky Mountain Land Library.
Without a master plan, helped and supported by volunteers who loved the idea of marrying books and nature, the Rocky Mountain Land Library has grown into a collection of 32,000 volumes now stashed in a trio of locales along the course of the South Platte, from its headwaters in South Park through Waterton Canyon and back into the city, where the story started. The third branch is housed in the vintage Puritan Pie Company building at 2612 Champa Street, which will host an opening celebration.
Jeff Lee and Ann Marie Martin met in 1986; they were both working at Denver’s legendary Tattered Cover bookstore, when it was located in a small space on the north side of Second Avenue in Cherry Creek. They moved in together in 1989, got married in 1991. Sharing an interest in natural-history books, they developed a core collection of approximately 6,000 volumes, all stored in their rented home on Humboldt Street.
Then they went to Wales on a book-buying expedition for the Tattered Cover. Lee and Martin visited St. Deiniol’s (now Gladstone’s) Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales, a “residential library” that houses the 32,000-volume collection of former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who wheeled them from his home to this site in 1894, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load, all by himself, at the age of 85.
"It’s a library, but people can come and stay,” says Lee. “We just went there for a three-day weekend before the London Book Fair, and it was so wonderful. You’re actually living among all these books! And we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it wonderful to have something like that in Colorado?’”
Years of patient purchases followed, until their house bulged with 30,000 books. They searched for a location that could become the Rocky Mountain Land Library, housing their collection and accommodating educational programs, with space for research, visitors and conferences — but set in nature, hugging the land.
“We’ve been a nonprofit since, I think it was in the early part of 2001, 2002.... We’ve been around for quite a while,” says Lee, sounding almost surprised. "We always thought, ‘Let’s just do things to advance the mission as we can.'"
Meanwhile, their rented home went on the market in 2012, and they had to move after 23 years. Jeff Goldfogel, CEO of Denver’s Acme Distribution Centers, donated space and help, and three truckloads and 1,026 boxes later, the rest of the library was safe in temporary storage.
In 2013, the couple finally found the 154-year-old Buffalo Peaks Ranch, on 1,000 square miles on the treeless, grassy basin of South Park, about halfway between Fairplay and Hartsel, near the ghost town of Garo, where the South and Middle Forks meet to form the headwaters of the South Platte River. “It’s coincidentally on the banks of the Platte," Lee says, "and it gives everyone this watershed-level understanding of the landscape.”
Armed with a 99-year-lease from the City of Aurora, which owns the Buffalo Peaks property, Lee and Martin got to work with allies such as architect Jeff Schultz to rehabilitate and preserve the ranch. Kat Vlahos, director of the Center for Preservation Research at the University of Colorado Denver, who specializes in historic ranch preservation, documentation and analysis, challenged her studio class to come up with design solutions. This July, volunteers from the HistoriCorps historic-structure preservation organization re-roofed the ranch’s bunkhouse and cookhouse.
Then the couple got an e-mail from the Richardson family, which owns the old Puritan Pie Factory. "They had read the story about the project in Poets & Writers magazine," Lee explains, "and said, ‘This is what we want for the next chapter for the Pie Factory.’ So, they endowed it. The family has had a sizable property-management company for years, and there’s a treasure trove of items for historical preservation in there. There’s a beautiful, massive door frame from the State Capitol in there. And we’ll have some Beat-era books there, too: It turns out Neal Cassady’s childhood home is right there.”
The plan is to house a Kids’ Nature Library and an Urban Homesteading Library and Learning Center in the Champa location, providing a much-needed resource for urban farmers. Longer-term goals include the creation of a free seed library and a teaching kitchen. “Food is such a positive topic,” says Lee. “People really react to it. To us, food is this wonderful intersection of people and the land. It’s a great entry point. We really want people to be able to connect to the space where they live – writers and artists and kids. We’ll be ready to have programs this coming year.”
Tonight's celebration will include food (pie, of course), drink, music, a silent auction and the opening of the first few boxes of the library’s long-stored overflow, which is now up to more than 1,500 boxes.
“We are really excited to be here in town,” says Lee. “There are so many people moving to Colorado these days, and this is a great way to find out about this new home of theirs. Denver is where we have our biggest fan base, which is great, because this is where we need the help right now."
The couple continues to work at the Tattered Cover — where they've been for more than thirty years — and there's still unpacking to be done. “We have big volunteer work days ahead, working with books, getting them in shape for the library shelves," Lee says. "We'll start slowly replacing the old shelving units with bookcases that we got from the old Cherry Creek Tattered Cover; we’ve got 150 of those stashed away.
“It can be a wearisome task, doing all this, and we have been really heartened that young people, especially, are coming out and helping to make this happen, who want to do something in and with the community. It’s so inspiring. It’s like that question of ‘Are books dead?’ isn’t there at all. There is nothing like the embedded potential of a book.”
The Rocky Mountain Land Library’s Pie Factory Pop-up Celebration will run from 5 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, October 20, at the Puritan Pie Company building, 2612 Champa Street. For tickets, visit landlibrary.org.
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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.