The action was risky but the twenty-six women who gathered in Mrs. Grant Gruel’s living room at 8 Ivy Lane in Lakewood, New York on the evening of May 20, 1960 were determined. No one hesitated to sign her name to the document which affirmed the founding of the Lakewood Library Association. In the following days other names were added to the Charter. Prominent Lakewood lawyer, Joseph Gerace, completed all the legal paperwork necessary for state approval . In October 1960 the Association received the Provisional Charter that was the basis for the creation of the Lakewood Memorial Library.
The grassroots movement was energized in large part by women active in the venerable Lakewood Women’s Club. Although the municipal governments of both Lakewood and the Town of Busti gave enthusiastic backing to the idea, this was to be an “Association Library”. Those who signed as Charter Members and all other residents of the area were responsible for its success or failure. Such a library would be almost wholly dependent upon volunteers. There was an initial exhilaration at taking the first step, but seasoned library officials stated their doubts about the ability of the community to sustain enough volunteer strength as time passed. In reality, the present library files contain ledgers listing the names of innumerable volunteers and their hours worked over a fifty-year period. They bear testimony to the sticking power of Lakewood Library volunteers.
Events moved quickly once the initial plunge was taken. A 15-member governing board was assembled. Rosamund Braley served as President during this phase. She was succeeded later in 1960 by Nancy Swanson who also served as Library Director during its first year. Lucy Darrow Peake, a Lakewood School Librarian provided the guiding hand behind all the details of creating a library and developing library operations. She also recommended that Mrs. Warren Alexander, her former student, be “hired” as a full-time employee (even she was a volunteer during her first year). Other committees were formed.
Residents of the village, business executives, accountants, teachers, were all enrolled for their expertise. From the beginning the entire operation was on a prudent businesslike basis.
A Membership Campaign held in October 1960 provided the funds necessary to underwrite the efforts. Individual memberships cost $1.00. A $25.00 donor became a Charter Member. The Drive plus other special gifts and donations amounted to over $5,000. The bottom line of the first budget- for 1960-61 was $4,905.
The new Lakewood Memorial Library was set up in a 700 square foot room leased from the Post Office on Chautauqua Avenue. Its furnishings were simple. There were two tables, ten chairs, a desk, and shelves.. There was no vestibule, no storage space, no coat room, no work space. The rest room shared space with cleaning supplies in a closet. Books were collected from community residents and $250.00 was spent to buy books from the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown.
After its official opening on December 4, 1960, the popularity of the new institution was never in doubt. Some 5,000 books were circulated during its first year.
Each succeeding year saw an increase. By 1969 the library was circulating over 20,000 books a year. The membership which stood at 900 in 1960 rose to over 4,000 during the same years.
The library became a popular and familiar spot during its first decade. Maintenance was assured by donations of both money and services from both the Village of Lakewood and the town of Busti. A separate Memorial Fund was a cushion against emergency expenses or special projects. Katherine Alexander became a paid employee. She was to remain, the personification of the library, for four decades. She imprinted the library with her welcoming, warm, and willing personality.
Volunteer activity did not flag. The governing Board increased to 24 members early in the decade. Katy Post, Nancy Swanson, Eleanor Neilson, Harry Robie and Mary Gerace all took turns as President during that time.
The library’s assured success led the Board to entertain thoughts of larger quarters as early as 1963. By 1968 operating personnel feared that the overcrowded conditions that precluded leisure browsing and further programming, would endanger the library’s efficacy and popularity. The library leaders again took a daring step when they resolved to seek funding to construct a free-standing home for the Lakewood Library.
The entire community was drawn into the vigorous fund-raising campaign to raise $150,000. Co-chairmen Kenneth Strickler, a Jamestown business owner and Carl Bowen, an Art Metal executive, both Lakewood residents, were joined by Mary Gerace, Board President, to organize an effective campaign. Lakewood residents who were businessmen, executives and community leaders were among the more than 150 workers involved in the effort. They
headed campaign divisions – Advance Gifts, Individual Gifts, Special Gifts. The Lakewood Women’s club provided section captains to canvass the entire residential area. Many unsung volunteers provided the necessary support structure.
As the campaign progressed throughout 1968 and 1969 the Board purchased a ¾ acre of land on the southeast corner of Summit Street and Owana Way. Buildings on the property were demolished in September of 1969, plans drawn up by the architectural firm of Neater, Thorsell and Dove were approved and construction began.
The one floor, 4,900 square foot structure was completed in the summer of 1970. The story of the book-moving day has become legendary in Lakewood history. On July 11, 1970 a human chain of 200 Lakewood residents, both children and adults, was formed, leading from the Chautauqua Avenue location to the new facility on Summit Street. Over 19,000 volumes were passed hand to hand. Other volunteers inside the library shelved the books as they arrived.
At the gala formal opening of the new library on October 18, 1970, the public crowded in to appreciate what their efforts and dollars had created. The charge desk stood just inside the main entrance vestibule. A conference room, dedicated to Lucy Darrow Peake opened off the spacious main library area. The Director’s office, rest rooms, and utility room and receiving rooms were located toward the rear of the building. Among the rows of shelving, a lounge, furnished with easy chairs encouraged patron relaxation.
The Library received its permanent Charter in 1970 and during the next three decades, the Lakewood Memorial Library stabilized and strengthened its place in the community. Library operating policies and guidelines demanded by state mandate and local requirements were strictly followed under two or more term presidential leadership of Jean Carlson, Rosamund Braley, Rose Federico, Carol Cadwell, Elsa Hern, and Mark Hampton.
The number of volunteers willing to accept leadership of the Board diminished in the 1980s. Mary Gerace, a previous Board President who, along with Katy Post had shouldered the major details in the earlier Fund-Raising Project, stepped up to the job. Her Presidency of the Board throughout the next two decades was characterized by prudent investments and thoughtful expenditures.These were approved only after periods of investigating and discussions, some of several month’s duration. Space shortage, a problem chronic to all libraries, and increasing patronage requiring more breadth and variety in the library offerings, led the Board to replace the lounge area with additional stacks. Roof replacement and the creation within the building of a restroom to accommodate handicapped patrons were major renovations in the 1990s.
Katherine Alexander retired in the late 1990s and the position of Director was filled by short term or temporary leaders. Veteran staff, Donna Gordan and Jackie McIntyre ably handled the Library operations during this transition period and helped the changing parade of directors to become acquainted. At the same time, more policy and financial responsibility was thrust upon the Board of Trustees. Pat Berry, a well-qualified Director, was hired in 2002 and advocated a Capital Fund Drive to renovate the 40-year old building. The Board personnel at this time included many of the same stalwart volunteers who had been enthusiastic participants in the strenuous events of the early 1970s 30 years before. They were no longer the energetic young women who had labored to build the library’s sound foundation. They saw the projected plans as the responsibility for younger members and during the next two years a number of Board members retired or opted not to be reelected. However, all who love the Lakewood Memorial Library can recognize with deep appreciation that much of what the library means to the village of Lakewood today points to the absolute devotion and freely-given services of these veterans.
Director Pat Berry resigned in 2006 and in 2007 Mary Miller, well qualified in library work both in this country and abroad, became the fulltime Director. She provided the strong professional leadership the library demanded at this point in its history.
The changes envisioned in 2004 became reality by 2008. Board Members, Geri Swanson, Bernie Elkin, Karen Dennerlein, Karin Flynn, and Paul Andrews joined by community volunteers, Betsy Shepherd, John Anderson, Marion Gibbon, Wendy Kane and Richard Rose were members of the Steering Committee chaired by Helen Ebersole, a former Library Board member. This multifunctional and hard-working committee both directed the Capital Campaign that raised the necessary $800,000 to underwrite the project, and worked closely with Architect Steven Sandberg of Harrington, Sandberg, Architects in the planning and implementation of the project. Director Mary Miller proved to be the key to prompt accomplishment. She was untiring in her dogged attention to detail. Her supervision of the packing and removal to storage vans of over 80,000 books and related items, and their subsequent proper reshelving certainly, merits her a medal.
Lakewood residents and supporters expressed nothing but pride and satisfaction in the transformed library at the Grand Opening on March 12, 2009. They entered through a reconstructed and enlarged entryway that not only led to the main library but also to a 500 square foot comfortably furnished addition designed as a gallery, a small group meeting room and a comfortable area for relaxation. In the main library the Director’s Office and a work room opening from the charge desk and business area all were designed for efficient and smooth operations. State of the art heating and air conditioning systems and eye-ease lighting assured patron comfort. Additional computers answered an urgent need. Provision to install future technological facilities was part of the master plan. It was obvious to all viewers that while The Lakewood Library, newly energized, would still be their own comfortable and welcoming place, it was also now well prepared to face the inevitable changes in the future.
In its fifty year history the Lakewood Memorial Library has fulfilled and expanded the vision of its founders. From a limited storefront lending library it has become the village center for education, for entertainment, for community communication, and for artistic appreciation. It endlessly enriches the village and its residents. Its capacity to meet the demands of changing times assures that it will remain a vital village institution for many years to come.
– Helen Ebersole