Before his 1984 suicide, author Richard Brautigan wrote, “All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds.” In his 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, Brautigan used the same dark whimsy to tell the story of a lonely library employee whose workplace houses unpublished books.
Some Vermonters, and a few hundred unpublished authors from around the world, will recall that the fictional model became a reality in Burlington two decades ago. Later, it disappeared. But the library is about to get a new home in Washington state — birthplace of the countercultural icon Brautigan himself — and a technological adaptation that will bring it into the 21st century.
First, a little 20th-century background. Burlington photographer and businessman Todd Lockwood established the Brautigan Library in 1990 with the help of a board (which included now Seven Days co-owner Pamela Polston) and a volunteer corps that would eventually number nearly 100. Lockwood, who had read The Abortion several times over the years, says he always hoped someone would create a similar library. That is, until he saw the movie Field of Dreams, coincidentally based on Shoeless Joe, a novel by noted Brautigan devotee W.P. Kinsella.
Inspired by the Kevin Costner flick, Lockwood immediately set out to “build it” — not a baseball field but a library. And six months later, “they came” … to a grand opening of the narrow, high-ceilinged, shelf-lined space on lower College Street. Brautigan’s daughter, Ianthe Swensen, placed the very first book on the shelf: a collection of letters to the editor by “Donald McNowski,” a frequent and pseudonymous correspondent to the Vermont Vanguard Press and the Burlington Free Press. Lockwood refers to the satirical character as “somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun: an absolute right-wing nutcase.”
The volume was filed between two large jars of Hellman’s, a nod to Brautigan’s fascination with the word “mayonnaise.” The Mayonnaise System became the library’s alternative to Dewey Decimal — it allowed submitters to place their works in categories such as “Love” and “Street Life.” All were identically hard-covered by a binding machine in which Lockwood had invested.
By 1996, fueled by publicity that snowballed around the globe, the collection had grown to nearly 400 tomes. Among them were novels, autobiographies, poetry, histories and more by writers from all over the world — though writing in English was required. There was even a screenplay whose writer, Lockwood claims, later sold it for a quarter-million dollars. Eventually submissions dwindled, and Lockwood admits that he and his volunteers — who staffed the library on weekends to welcome visitors — had “run out of fuel.”
Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library accepted the existing manuscripts — and even re-created a slice of the Brautigan in an unused corner — but could not provide a home to new ones. The public library kept the static display until 2006, when space limitations forced it to return the boxes of unpublished words to Lockwood. The collection has been stored in his basement, and Lockwood has spent several years trying to find the library another home. He’s happy he’ll soon be shipping those boxes to the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, Wash.
Why? Because Lockwood found that a professor of digital technology and culture at Washington State University in Vancouver, John Barber, also happens to be a Brautigan scholar. The developer and curator of the Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, Barber has combined his two areas of expertise in an endeavor that will give the Vermont-born collection new energy — on the Internet.
While the physical books will be stored on the shelves of the 101-year-old Historical Museum, any new submissions will be cataloged by Barber’s students and circulated in virtual form. Even books like McNowski’s will soon receive online synopses, before going fully digital. According to Lockwood, the eventual goal is to create a system that allows readers “to browse 10 pages of a book online, then pull out their credit card and order the whole thing. It would be sent to the Kinko’s closest to them, where it would be printed and bound, and the author would receive a royalty.”
Far fetched? Not in the era of the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine. As Lockwood puts it, the new project is just pushing further his original, Brautigan-esque goal of “bridging the reality gap; taking fiction and trying to give it flesh and bones and bricks and mortar.”