HILLSDALE–Tucked away in a quiet corner where winding back roads converge, Rodgers’ Book Barn is as much a part of the character of Hillsdale as the rolling hills, cornfields and views. This marks the 40th anniversary of the Book Barn, and the Roeliff Jansen Community Library will honor and celebrate Maureen Rodgers and her contributions at its 2012 Gala June 2.
“When the Gala Committee met to consider whom to honor at the gala this year, Maureen Rodgers was on everyone’s short list. Her love is not simply for books but for learning itself, and that passion has served her patrons and our entire community very well,” says Howard Van Lenten, president of the library’s Board of Trustees. As a child in London Ms. Rodgers she would ride her bicycle to a local library that had survived the Blitz. On the way she would ride past a bookstore and would often stop and browse there, too. After she came to the U.S. in 1961, she worked in New York City at number of jobs, mostly involving books. But it was not until she was setting up a library for a private company that she realized she could create a book business of her own and began buying out-of-print literary works, basing her purchases on lists of what college libraries should have.
This mail order business grew and in 1966, when she and her then husband were looking for a residence in Columbia County, one of their requirements was that the property include a barn for storing all the books she had been acquiring. As Ms. Rodgers says, “It’s much easier to collect books than it is to sell them.” The property they settled on at the intersection of Rodman and Whippoorwill Roads in North Hillsdale is where she currently lives and where The Book Barn is located. By 1968 they were full time residents.
Ms. Rodgers soon realized that in summer, when colleges weren’t in session, she had no income from her mail order business, so she cleared out the front room of the barn in order to create a used-book sales space. In the summer of 1972 Rodgers’ Book Barn opened in the small room that now serves as the store’s entrance. People stopped in, bought books and spread the word.
She kept buying books and clearing more space in the barn. They removed hay and milking stalls–she seems now to regret the loss, thinking the stalls might have made cozy nooks–until the whole lower floor was filled. When they removed the hay upstairs to add shelves a carpenter reminded her that books are a lot heavier than hay, and reinforcement was required.
As The Book Barn business grew, her mail order business became more of a distraction than an asset, and she decided to focus full time on the Barn, winterizing the structure so it could be a year-round operation.
Mary Allen has known Maureen Rodgers for upwards of 35 years recalls envying Ms. Rodgers’, whose job seemed to be sitting elegantly in the barn among books, talking to interesting people about literature. But after Ms. Allen left her job with the state, she worked for a while at the Book Barn and discovered the truth: “She works harder than anyone I know!” attending countless book sales, hauling heavy boxes of books, “assessing and reassessing” the collection so that books don’t sit on the shelves collecting dust.
As a young woman Ms. Rodgers travelled extensively to Africa and lived in India. Lately she has travelled to the Amazon and Cuba, and, when her two daughters were young, even as a working single mother, she found a way to travel to show them the world.
Susan Enright currently shares fully in the work of the Barn, and Ms. Rodgers credits her with many of the decorative and design elements in the Barn.
Ms. Rodgers’ devotion to books and literature extends beyond the store. She is a member of the library’s Board of Trustees, is active on various committees, and sometimes volunteers behind the counter.
And though the library and the Book Barn are both founded and centered on books, Ms. Rodgers notes the difference between the questions she is asked at her business and the questions she is asked behind the desk at the library, where patrons are seeking useful information and need computer-savvy help navigating the Internet. Yet she notes that they share much in common: both are places where the curious congregate and where culture is kept very much alive.
Ms. Rodgers speaks solemnly about the changes that our world has undergone in the age of Amazon books. People are no longer reading as much–or shopping in bookstores for books, new or used. Business has slowed, and she no longer needs to keep duplicates and triplicates of important or popular books. Books don’t turn over as fast as they did once, and people aren’t as eager to seek out the bargain hardcover. (Most likely they already have it waiting in their Kindle archive.)
The Book Barn is a relic of a part of our world that is becoming rare, but still has devoted and grateful patrons who still love and cling to what we are losing. And for people like Mary Allen, Maureen Rodgers is still there in the room, just making you want to read.