Savoring words

Lainie Steelman

Hidden away in the tiny town of Ellisville, population 86, is one great big treasure: 3,500 books packed into 336 square feet, the smallest library in the state of Illinois.

The state's smallest library, however, has actually grown over the last five years.

In 1966, Ellisville native Helen Myers rented the town's old telephone office, a space consisting of just 140 square feet, and started the library. For the next 37 years, Helen single-handedly maintained the library through donations and her own money.

By 2002, with the telephone building falling apart and the owner of the building refusing to sell, Helen decided it was time to move. Using donations she had built up in a savings account and some of her own money, she spent $8,000 to have a new library constructed on a piece of land she already owned, just down the street from the telephone office.

Helen officially opened the new Ellisville library, which is double the size of the old one, in 2003.

Word of Helen's work spread, and First Lady Laura Bush sent seven books and a letter, which is framed on the library's back wall.

"I purposely did not put her name in the books, because I figured somebody would check them out and keep them," Helen says.

Television celebrity Monty Hall sent her a check for $100, and the widow of author Louis L'Amour sent $300.

Five years after the new library's opening, Helen, now 82, still opens up the library from 9 to 11 a.m. every Saturday and hopes that people will come discover a great book.

Helen says she is lucky if two people come in on any given Saturday, but that's fine with her. In a town the size of Ellisville, people know where to find her if they want a book. "They all know where I live, they all know my phone number." she says with a laugh. "If they want me to come down and open the library, I will."

It's the number of children that visit her library that Helen finds discouraging.

"If I get two kids over three Saturdays, that's doing good," she says with a sigh. "They're busy with the television and the computers. It's kind of sad because there's so many good books here."

Helen's library contains children's books of every genre, in addition to fiction, autobiographies, poetry, Westerns and romance novels. She has books written by everyone from Al Roker, the NBC weatherman, to Salman Rushdie. She even has a full set of World Book encyclopedias, donated by the company when she opened the new library.

When someone wants a book from the library, Helen gives them a library card and stamps a due date, just like at any other library.

She admits that she has a large number of books that are long overdue.

"I've got some that have been due since 1981," Helen says. "I don't think I'm ever going to get them back, because those people are grandparents now. But that's OK because I've got plenty of books."

One of those books, of course, is Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," which made the river that Ellisville sits next to famous.

Helen has always been a book lover, and says she started to read at the age of four.

Raised in the Ellisville area, Helen expressed an interest in education and spent a year teaching in a country school

. "In 1945, you could get a war emergency teaching certificate, and that's what I taught on," she says. "I had 10 kids, and I taught everything. The oldest boy was 16 and I was 18. He was about a head taller than me."

Helen went on to marry Kenneth Myers, who passed away in 1990, and raise two daughters, Kay and Sally, who also went into teaching.

"I've got three going right now," Helen says about the books she is currently reading, mentioning Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye."

"My husband was a big reader. One of my daughters reads a book a week."

It's her passion for reading that has motivated Helen to keep the library going. She still runs the library entirely through donations and her own money, and receives no funding from the state.

Helen says she typically receives about $60 per year in monetary donations. When there isn't enough money in her donations savings account to pay the library's gas or light bill, she pays it herself.

Every year during the Spoon River Drive, the annual two-weekend event that brings bargain hunters out to enjoy the fall scenery, Helen raises library funds by selling her Fulton County-shaped cookies. The homemade sour cream sugar cookies have a line of green icing that represents the Spoon River and silver dragree that represents Ellisville.

"It's been a struggle," Helen admits about her efforts to maintain the library.

"My one daughter thinks I ought to just get rid of the books and close it down. Maybe one day somebody will come and need something. One day some kid who comes in here might be president, who knows? Anything is possible."