The Old South Haven Library and Old Miss Nellie Stewart

Updated: Apr 3

Mabel Marcellus Anthony of Casco, South Haven, was a feature reporter for the Daily Tribune and authored a column called Odds ‘n Ends. Here are some of Mabel’s memories of the library.


In the days before radio and television, when movies were an occasional treat and kids were expected to amuse themselves, I read books.


A generation after mine, kids bought a few comic books and a couple of paperbacks, and by astute trading around the neighborhood, kept themselves in fresh reading materials all summer. I was born 30 years too soon. I had to borrow books from the Public Library.


Each visit to that grey stone building at Phoenix Street and Broadway was an exercise in controlled panic. One did not bound in and browse ad lib amongst the stacks. One did not talk above a whisper, and only when it was absolutely necessary did one speak at all.


What one did was enter in complete silence and tiptoe across the hard tile floor and up the wide stairs. The book being returned was clutched in sweaty palms; tightly, lest one’s grip slip and let fall, a mishap I firmly believed would terminate my borrowing privileges forever.


At the top of the steps was a semi-circular enclosure with a linoleum-covered edge chin-high to a little girl. Behind it, on a bookkeeper’s stool sat Miss Nellie Stewart, watching over the tops of her steel rims as supplicants approached in fear and trembling.


She was a large woman, or perhaps she only seemed so to a girl who was small for her age and not very old. Her word was law and her decisions not open to arbitration. After she had leafed carefully through each book you brought back, and was satisfied there were no torn pages, no turned down corners, co cookie crumbs or pencil marks, then she was ready to consider your request to borrow a different one.


You never saw the book you chose til Miss Stewart brought it, stamped it in all the proper places, and handed it over the counter. You studied the list of what was available, picked a title that sounded interesting or an author that proved reliable, and wrote the identifying number on a slip of paper. Miss Stewart liked a multiple choice, so unless someone else was waiting to use it or it was too close to closing time, you could study the list as long as you liked––if you didn’t rattle the pages.


You copied numbers and each visit you presented the paper to Miss Stewart, who disappeared into the vast maw of open shelves and came back with a book. If you were reading a series, like the Bobbsey Twins, you could only hope for the next in line. (A gap in that sequence was akin to missing a week’s worth of present-day soap operas.)


Off to the shadowy right was a reading room, with long tables and straight-backed chairs. I never ventured in there. How could anyone concentrate on the printed page surrounded by strangers and with a gimlet stare directed at the back of your head from behind that desk in the outer room?


I tried fairy tales, but I read too many and too fast and I never could remember which princess lived with the dwarves, which was put to sleep by a poisoned needle. Or was it any apple? I refused to believe that all princes were handsome and honest, all kings rich, all stepmothers mean, and the whole lot of them stupid enough to be fooled by an obviously wicked queen.


Little Women gave me an inferiority complex. How could a kid with temper and more than a streak of stubbornness ever hope to identify with anyone as sticky sweet and good as Meg and Beth?


I rode the purple sage with Zane Grey, prowled the Limberlost with Gene Stratton Porter, mushed the frozen north with Jack London, and wept gallons when Black Beauty died.


Somewhere along the line I read The President’s Daughter, a biographical account I recognized as scandalous even if I didn’t quite understand why. I read Three Weeks and Chickie and Tess of the Storm Country. Like the princes and princesses, they went through too fast to touch more than the skimmest surface of my mind.


I did understand that these books were considered unfit reading for nice people, because they weren’t on the Public Library’s list. Would I have gathered the courage to request them if they had been there? Would I have laughed aloud? Or slammed a door? Maybe I would have just dropped a book on the floor.

Over the last few years, I have collected some memories of the library from those who grew up in South Haven and would like to publish more here. Please send your stories to nancy.shca@gmail.com.

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