Library: The Pembroke Library

Benjamin Cohen
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The Pembroke Library is about nine feet wide by thirty feet long. It’s a full lending library, with four thousand books, two computers, a dozen movies, and, for almost fifteen years, the same congenial librarian, Claire Robertson. With no telephone and restricted hours—it’s open only two hours a day, four days a week—the place is tricky to visit.

For a very long time, the building sat on Main Street beside the historic Pembroke Hotel. A few years ago, the telephone co-op bought the land (for $1) for a new parking lot. The hotel was razed in the name of parking progress, but the bank around the corner agreed to let the Library sit on its lot. So a moving crew came over with a flatbed, lifted up the Library, and unceremoniously plopped it down around the corner. Claire and a friend personally moved all of the books to their basements before the transition, storing them until the new shelves were properly bolted down.

Pembroke has nearly twelve hundred people. There are no stoplights, three gas stations, a Subway (the sandwich shop, recently opened), and a Dairy Queen (under new ownership). In southwestern Virginia, the town sits by the New River and a few miles from the Appalachian Trail. Most people nearby know it because you have to turn right at Dairy Queen to get to the Cascades, a worthy two-mile hike in the Jefferson National Forest that brings you to a stunning waterfall. Others might now know it because town limits recently expanded to include the Mountain Lake Hotel at the top of a nearby mountain, famous for providing Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey their Dirty Dancing set. (The hotel still screens the movie on movie nights from time to time.)

The library building itself dates to the 1800s. It was originally a post office. They say it was a Pony Express stop, a claim seemingly based on an undated photo on the library’s walls showing a horseman standing in front of the library porch. The Pembroke Women’s Club (PWC) took charge of the building in the 1970s and has since been its caretaker. All of the books are donated. The lending period is two weeks. They don’t have problems with overdue items. The selection is decent. Children’s stories are the biggest section. Lots of Westerns, too. Romance, Science Fiction, Action, Mystery, a wall of standard Fiction, plus assorted nonfiction reference works, history books, biographies, self-help. They’ve got at least a dozen Margaret Atwoods, but “Danielle Steele is definitely our biggest holding.”

Does the library get a lot of visitors? “Yes, a few a week, I’d say. But some days none.” Lots of people come from out of state, folks who stop their cars to take pictures but don’t come in, as if passing the world’s largest ball of twine. Many locals use the library just for the printer. The computers were granted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after the President of the PWC wrote an apparently remarkable application for the grant. Claire says a Richmond-based representative (that’s more than two hundred miles away) from the Gates Foundation was so impressed that he promised a personal visit, which he did, last year. And, although there is no telephone, there is an internet connection. The day I was there, Claire was making flash cards about historical figures for her grandson’s history class—Hadrian was on the computer screen.

Many locals have never even been in. “It’s just like at Pigeon Forge [Tennessee],” says Claire. “People who live there probably don’t go to Dollywood, but we’ll drive down there from here to visit.” One older local gentleman visited often. He was a big fan of the Westerns— read everything they had, several hundred at least, and then donated bags of his own paperbacks. He died less than a week after dropping off the last bag, which still sits where he left it, on the shelf. Claire didn’t want to shelve the books, out of respect for him.

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