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Spirit of 5,000-book library enlivens ghostly hamlet of 1

2 hours, 9 minutes ago

By Stephanie Simon Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

Weeds twine around the disintegrating remnants of the water tower and sprout in a tangle through the floorboards of the grandest house in town. The Methodist church, gray with rot, slumps toward the frozen ground. An empty mailbox flaps open on a gravel rut that was once a road.

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The people of Monowi have died or moved--all but one: Elsie Eiler. Brisk and unsentimental at 71, she lives in the one home still fit for living, a snug trailer with worn white siding. She runs the one business left in Monowi, a dark, wood-paneled tavern, thick with smoke.

She also runs the library.

The sign outside the library is painted on a section of a refrigerator door. The floor is bare plywood. There's no heat. But there are thousands upon thousands of books: "The Complete Works of Shakespeare," "Treasure Island," Trixie Belden and "The Happy Valley Mystery." Zane Grey's Westerns, every one of them, are lined up across two shelves. Then there are Homer, Tennyson, Goethe.

Elsie's late husband, Rudy, read them endlessly. He farmed and tended bar; he ran a grain elevator; he delivered gas to filling stations, and when the town was down to just him and Elsie, he was mayor too. But he always found time to read: science fiction, history, the classics, anything but a Harlequin romance.

When he got sick with cancer two years ago, Rudy confided a dream to Elsie: He wanted to turn his collection into a public library.

Rudy ordered a building and set it a few steps from his home and his tavern. The Eilers' son, Jack, wired the lights, and friends built floor-to-ceiling shelves. Rudy died in January 2004, before he could fill them.

Five months later, his friends and family came together to pack the small white building with Rudy's books. Elsie Eiler estimates they shelved at least 5,000 volumes.

Monowi, population 1, had its library.

The farm kids who come tumbling into the tavern with their parents run up to the library now and again to paw through the magazines.

Friends visiting Eiler from the neighborhood--any town within 50 miles--stop by every few months to browse. Rudy's younger brother, Jim, pulls up his pickup at the library door and carts home stacks at a time.

Monowi may be the smallest town in the nation with its own library, but the bounty of books here for the taking is very much in the spirit of rural America.

All across the Great Plains, towns that have long since lost their schools and their banks still keep little libraries going.

Nearly 30 percent of the nation's libraries serve communities of fewer than 2,500 people, including almost 3,000 libraries in towns where the population is measured in the hundreds.

Because they run on volunteer labor, making do with the books at hand, rural libraries survive even in tight times such as these, when big cities are shutting branches.

In California, John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas (pop. 150,000) has announced plans to close all its libraries by April to save money. But it's still possible to check out a book in Gaylord, Kan. (pop. 97), and Strang, Neb. (pop. 38).

In Monowi, Eiler keeps the key to the library in the tavern. She's there 12 or 14 hours a day, frying egg sandwiches for the farmers and hunters and construction workers who stop by for lunch at any random hour they're free.

"Go on up and take a look," she'll urge.

Rudy's Library has fewer than 350 square feet. The books are worn, disorganized and eclectic.

It's impossible not to linger.

Here's "Ivanhoe" by Sir Walter Scott next to "Jaws 2: A Novel," adapted by Hank Searls after the movie. Mark Twain's collected works sit side by side with "Dancer of Dreams" by Patricia Matthews, touted on the cover as "America's First Lady of Love." That's one of the few Rudy likely never opened.

Honor system

The library runs on the honor system: Take what you want, return it when you can.

"You just have to look around till you find something you want to read," Eiler says.

Seven-year-old Shelby Micanek comes by after school one frosty afternoon. She's looking for a book about animals.

Shelby pulls out a textbook about mammals, flips through it eagerly, then frowns. Too many words. She wanders down the shelf, picking books at random.

"Look at this big one!" she calls out, wonder in her tone. "This would take a long time to read!" She's holding Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.

Over in the corner, 1st grader Cade Kalkowski is staring at a National Geographic (news - web sites) photo of a banana slug, entranced.

Then he spots a hardcover book and drops the banana slug with a shriek: "Killer sharks! I want this one!"

Cade runs back to the tavern to show his dad. Shelby follows, clutching "Zoo Babies."

Rudy collected these books over a lifetime in love with the printed word.

"He always said he never read any book but he didn't learn from it," Eiler says.

Although he had more books than he could possibly finish, Rudy prowled estate sales and thrift shops, always looking for more. When a community four towns over closed its school, he bought out the whole library--two pickup loads of outdated textbooks and teen novels.

As Eiler puts it: "He was forever buying something for a little bit of nothing."

"Out here in the sticks, we don't have a lot of things to do," explains Barb Weeder, a friend.

"So if you find something you like to do, you do a lot of it," Eiler adds.

Tavern patrons got used to seeing Rudy's books piled every which way, under the 50-cent bags of chips or on top of the bar, or over by the collection of beer steins painted with Clydesdale horses.

Eiler reads too. She loves historical novels. But in 49 1/2 years of marriage, she never could catch up to Rudy.

Rudy Eiler's habits

He always had two or three books going at once, and if he really liked one, he would put it on his list to reread through the long, still nights of a prairie winter.

Rudy did most of his exploring through books. He spent three years in France with the Air Force after high school. Then he and Elsie lived in Omaha for six months while he finished his military obligation.

But soon as they could, the Eilers moved back to Monowi, where they had met in the one-room schoolhouse on the hill when he was in 4th grade and she was in 3rd.

Even at its peak in the 1930s, Monowi had fewer than 150 residents. When Elsie and Rudy bought the tavern in 1971, the population was down to 22.

Monowi remains an incorporated town because there's no reason to dissolve it. Eiler grants herself her own liquor license, collects taxes from herself--"it's a matter of cents, really"--and keeps the books.

When the state sends her paperwork, "I just sign wherever it needs to be signed: mayor, secretary, treasurer," she says. "They know I'm the only one up here."

On busy days, a few dozen customers will stop by the tavern for a beer or a T-bone steak or a $3 platter of gizzards. Now and then, a reader will come in.

Beth Davy drove 12 miles from her home along the Missouri River bluffs with her daughter and her grandkids last summer. They spent three hours rummaging through the shelves.

The other day Davy was back, returning a novel she had borrowed and plucking a new one from the shelf at random, with an air of expectation.

`Sounds like a mystery'

"`Walking Through the Dark,"' she said, reading off the cover. "Sounds like a mystery." She wrote her name and the title in a notebook up front to let Eiler know she was taking it home.

Eiler means to put the books in order one day. But there's a part of her that likes how they are now, helter-skelter.

There's a proper library an hour's drive away, in O'Neill, with 28,500 volumes.

That's the place to go if you need a book.

Rudy's Library is where to go if you love them.

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