Pop.: 1 Plus 5,000 Volumes
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.
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 in, 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 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, lined up across two shelves. Homer. Tennyson. Amy Tan. 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 served as 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 custom-made 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. But 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 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, looking for pictures of man-eating snakes. Friends visiting Elsie from the neighborhood -- any town within 50 miles -- stop by every few months to browse. Rudy’s younger brother Jim pulls his pickup to 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.
Across the Great Plains, towns that have long since lost their schools, their banks and all hope of a future still keep their little libraries going. Volunteers open them for a few hours a week, waiting for readers to come down deserted Main Streets.
Nearly 30% 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 like these, when big cities are shutting branches. In California, John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas (population 150,000) has announced plans to close all of its libraries by April to save money. But it’s still possible to check out a book in Gaylord, Kan. (population 97), and Strang, Neb. (population 38).
In Monowi, Elsie keeps the key to the library hanging in the tavern. She’s there 12 or 14 hours a day, frying up 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 is less than 350 square feet. The books are worn, disorganized and eclectic beyond description.
It’s impossible not to linger.
Here’s “Ivanhoe,” by Sir Walter Scott, next to “Jaws 2.” 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.)
“How to Get Filthy Rich, Even If You’re Flat Broke” recommends reading obituaries so you can assume a dead man’s identity to throw creditors off the hunt. “Adventures in Science with Doris and Billy” -- circa 1945 -- advises: “If you could fly in an airplane to the moon, you might reach it in about 100 days.”
Copies of Reader’s Digest date back to 1950; National Geographic, to 1953. A local newspaper from 1941 bears the front-page news that Rose Karel’s tonsillectomy went well.
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,” Elsie says. “You’ll probably run across something you’re not thinking of.”
Seven-year-old Shelby Micanek comes by after school one frosty afternoon, drawn to the children’s corner. She has two books at home, she says proudly, both Dick and Jane, one with a yellow cover, one with a blue.
In Rudy’s Library, 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 out 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, first-grader Cade Kalkowski is staring at a National Geographic 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,” Elsie says.
Though he had more books than he could 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 Elsie puts it: “He was forever buying something for a little bit of nothing.”
The subject didn’t matter to him, as long as it wasn’t straight romance. In his last year, he spent hours reading a seed catalog, cover to cover.
“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,” Elsie 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. Elsie reads too. She loves historical novels. But in 49 1/2 years of marriage, she never could catch up to Rudy.
He always had two or three books going at once, and if he really liked one, he’d put it on his list to re-read through the long, still nights of a prairie winter.
“He always said you were never locked in one place when you read books. You could be under the ocean or exploring space or shooting cowboys and Indians in the desert,” says the Eilers’ daughter, Rene Lassise, who was named after a character in one of Rudy’s beloved westerns.
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 up his military obligation. But as 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 fourth grade and she was in third.
This is rugged territory, a good three-hour drive from Omaha. The folding hills are good for pasture or for growing alfalfa, and not much else. Even at its peak in the 1930s, Monowi had fewer than 150 residents and measured perhaps three blocks by four blocks. When Elsie and Rudy bought the tavern in 1971, the population was down to 22.
But community is broadly defined out here.
It’s nothing to drive a half-hour or more to drop in on a neighbor. The local FM station keeps everyone up to date on the gossip from two counties: “That big 5-0 birthday bash was well attended, and Mike was definitely surprised.... “
And so, even as Monowi withered, even as their two children grew up and moved away, Rudy and Elsie never felt alone.
Monowi remains an incorporated town because there’s no reason to dissolve it. Elsie grants herself her own liquor license, collects taxes from herself -- “it’s a matter of cents, really” -- and keeps the books.
Every year, Elsie has to approve a municipal road plan to receive Monowi’s share of state transportation funds, which she sends to the county to maintain the two-lane highway that runs past her tavern.
A Notice of Public Hearing is duly posted in the tavern, announcing an upcoming meeting on the road plan for all citizens of Monowi to voice “support, opposition and/or suggestions.” The meeting is to be held “at the usual place.” Elsie figures it won’t last long.
When the state sends her paperwork, “I just sign wherever it needs to be signed: mayor, secretary, treasurer,” Elsie 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, finding treasures.
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. “ ‘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 Elsie know she was taking it home.
Elsie 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, a computerized card catalog and dozens of magazines laid out alphabetically, from Air & Space to Workbench.
That’s the place to go if you need a book. Rudy’s Library is where to go if you love them.