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Two Pint-Sized Literary Institutions Prosper in the Land of the Sagebrush : How the West Is Read


KETCHUM, Ida. — It's the weekend, and the, ah, ladies of Idaho's Ketchum Library have invited the, ahem, good ol' boys of Montana's Clark City Press to pass some stories, fire-roast dinner and celebrate the prospering of two distinctive but pint-sized literary institutions of the American West.

So, let's hear it for books not published in New York and libraries that stand against the wind.

And let's hear it for writing, overeating, reading, boozing, painting, fly fishing, local history, small-town culture, friendship, free-ranging wildlife and blue-sky Western vistas--some of the American values at play here recently in the town where Hemingway lived and died and where his legend lives on.

Surely this is a long way from the cities to be talking book publishing or progressive libraries. But sagebrush and pine and Rocky Mountain granite, along with other essentials--talent and money and camaraderie--tend to bring out dreams in people. And sometimes, dreams turn bookish.

The Ketchum Library was the dream of a handful of women who drifted to this resort area, next to Sun Valley, during the mid-1950s. They found themselves exchanging paperbacks and wishing for something better.

A modest enough idea, so why not take it to the extreme?

Today, the board of directors of the Ketchum Library is composed of 45 women who preside over an institution that sets a standard, if not the standard, for what a community library can become with enough will and wherewithal.

Most other towns in the 1990s could hardly imagine a community library like this: vaulted wood ceilings, a towering rock fireplace, glass-and-lawn-and-Berber-carpet, vast rows of tidy, well-tended books--all the product of the largess and affection of local citizens.

Virtually everyone in town is asked to contribute something to support the library, even if only $10 a year. That, along with a library-run thrift shop, means no public funds, not even a penny. Ketchum residents contribute to the library because the library is so thoroughly Ketchum.

"If this was tax-supported, I'm afraid it would be a small cinder-block building tucked away somewhere," says chief librarian Ollie Cossman.

Instead, the library resides in one of the most imposing buildings in town. It has 50,000 volumes, the equivalent of 15 books for every resident. And its staff is twice as large as a typical library its size. That means there are enough people to tend to books, maintain extensive reading programs--and still undertake such tasks as the painstaking collection, cataloguing and indexing of oral histories from the settlers of this resort valley, histories rich in encounters with Hemingway and Gary Cooper and legions of other storied Americans who passed through and were charmed by and raised hell here at the original Western destination resort.

The Ketchum Library's place in its community is uncommon indeed:

Bill McDorman, a local flower-seed rancher, is chatting over dinner one evening. The library is mentioned, and he says nonchalantly, "I can remember my first library card, No. 184. That was in 1959. I was 5 years old. . . . Understand, we are surrounded by wilderness and dusty little towns. When I grew up, this was the only place with a real library."

Among other novelties here, there are no fines for returning a book late. Logic maintains that it is impolitic to punish someone who will be asked to donate later.

But Heaven help you if you try to keep a book.

The story is told of a medical student who came to town and checked out 40 volumes from the Hemingway collection. He left town, and the books went with him. The library board tracked him to San Francisco, and tycoon Walter Annenberg's private airplane was then dispatched to retrieve the collection. The local newspaper covered the story of the books' return and ran a picture of stern library board members at the airport as the plane arrived.

Ever since, theft has remained well below average for libraries.

Such a special place as the Ketchum Library in such a grandiose place as Rocky Mountain Idaho naturally has become a literary stop-by for any number of writers. Public readings are frequent, and it's wise to show up an hour early on a Friday night to get a seat.

On one summer weekend, the library's guests are from a newer institution, the upstart Clark City Press, a publishing house founded four years ago in, of all places, Livingston, Mont., a couple hundred miles away. It is the work of landscape painter and fly fisherman extraordinaire Russell Chatham. This is the second time this year that Chatham has been invited to bring some of his authors to the Ketchum Library for reading and revelry.

Fitting, too, because Chatham dreams of becoming to American publishing what the Ketchum Library is to community libraries--a distinctive voice for quality in a tattered, bottom-line world; an institution rooted in the literary buddy system; a small Rocky Mountain spring with ambitions of becoming a river someday.

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