The Library Guys

It was the night of the Writers Showcase at the library. I was nervous, in that jittery way I am when I’m hosting or leading a discussion. I thought I was prepared when I made my opening remarks.

“I lost a former coworker Saturday when Forrest Little died.” I paused to choke back the emotion.

“Many of you may know him, or read about him in the Courier.” I could hear my own sniveling as I tried to get my emotions in check, but the audience was quiet. I looked at my brother Steve, who had come by to listen to the slate of readers for the night. Then I glanced at my wife Susan, who was taking pictures, and I took a breath.

“Thanks for the moment of silence,” I said, and added, “Forest was a writer too.”

I found out about Forrest’s car accident through Cheryl, who had known him since he was a baby. She found out through Carole, who was told by Forrest’s classmate, and a former coworker of ours, Jenna.

I’ve seen a picture of my late dad at my mom’s apartment recently. It’s not in a frame, but she keeps the snapshot tucked into the side of another picture frame. He’s on a job site, carrying his Playmate cooler, the red and white hard side, where the gable slides down over the side at the press of a button. Forrest brought the same cooler to work every day at the library and I want to share a few stories about the time when we were the library guys.

One day I asked Forest, in his skull t-shirt and jeans, to cut up some bookmarks. He started using the paper cutter at the reference desk, where we were pilot and copilot of the library’s day to day.

“Naw, don’t use that one, it’s dull,” I said.

“Let’s go use the one in the Youth Services workroom.” We walked into the room, with the green tabletop cutter in the corner under the window.

“Be careful, this one’s sharp.” I don’t remember if I said to use the guard or not. The blade locks after every slice if you drop the handle down far enough, but it also slows you down because you have to unhitch it after every cut.

He sliced a few and I left him to it. I didn’t think he needed any further training or OSHA clearance to operate a manual paper cutter.

A moment later, you guessed it; he had a paper towel from the bathroom wrapped around the top of his index finger, if I recall the correct digit.

All the female staff at the library, which was everyone except Forrest and I, seemed to go into mother and nurse mode simultaneously. Cheryl was the one who took him to the first aid kit, which happens to be in the kitchen. I think the gauze on the top of his finger could have been mistaken for a baseball. By the time his mom, Grace, came around, it was wrapped up tighter than King Tut. Grace, being the actual Mom, and not the library staff, of course, wanted to see the cut. So all the bandaging and molly coddling went for not. Forrest, for his part, shed not a tear, and managed to show how brave he was by not being completely embarrassed by his own mishandling of the paper cutter. Anyway, a decision was made that it did not need stitches nor did he need to go to the hospital, at least according to his mother, and the library nursing staff, now too many to name, who were milling around in the back hallway near the director’s office.

As I remember it, he came in the next day with a Band-Aid on his finger carrying his Playmate cooler.

Around Halloween, Melody and Jillian brought their war paint chest to get us ready for our zombie close-ups. I think we all came in dressed up. I had overalls, Jessica was vampire-like, and Forest wore his black hoodie, skull t-shirt, and blue jeans. It was Cheryl who turned heads, people didn’t recognize her with her teased hair, which had leaves and sticks stuck in it.

Well, we each got a turn in the Youth Activity-turned make-up room and we came out transformed with blackened eyes and streaking blood. We were zombie-fied, including Taylor, who looked more like Glinda the good witch, compared to the rest of our Thriller crew.

We have a photo of Cheryl, myself, Forrest and Jessica that I thought about sharing. Jessica and I are sort of leaning on each other and Cheryl’s got Forrest in a choke-hold, and his eyes are wide open.

The classic photo is of Jessica and Forrest at the circulation desk. Forrest is hamming it up for the camera with his eyes rolled back white, flashing sclera.

“I was thinking about Forrest on Saturday,” Taylor said, when she stopped by the reference desk. We got to talking with another patron, who also happened to take a few photos that day.

A lot of words have been written about Forrest, on Facebook, and elsewhere, but I’m going to miss Forrest’s writing. I had encouraged his writing, because at the time I was in the throes of attaining my MFA in creative writing. He wrote short poems, observations, and he especially liked writing lyrics. I told Forrest to stick to it, and enjoyed reading his creative posts on Facebook.

I like working with young people. They possess raw talents that are often un-directed. I’d like to think I had an impact on Forrest’s life in some small writerly way. But when someone’s raw talent is taken abruptly, I can only share how much of an impact knowing him had on me.

It’s been two weeks since Forrest’s passing. I hope his family will collect his writing, and perhaps his friends, including myself, can help too. I imagine those writings filling his Playmate cooler.

Lasting Impressions

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my Dad’s father, Grandpa Samry. When I teach the genealogy class at the Fairhope Public Library, I always show the students a copy of his citizenship certification. The man, who was born in Poland and came to America sometime during World War I, was always a shadowy figure. I only have a few childhood memories, and his dark features still seem mysterious to me all these years later. My visit to the Brockton Public Library was genealogical mostly, and had to do with digging into the past. He owned a store in Brockton, Massachusetts for decades and we have no historic photos of the store, of the man, or a written record of the actual name of the store.

My brother Steve said there was no sign on the front of the store, “but everyone just called it the Samry store.” He also told me that the store started on Market Street and moved to Main Street.

“I think there was a soda sign hanging inside that said Samry’s Store, It was either Cott or Dr. Pepper,” he remembered. I found the following nugget about the store in a Google search for “Samry’s Market.”

“If we started walking north up Main Street, we’d see The Keith Avenue Market on the corner and Samry’s Market next to it. Ladies hustled in and out of these stores to get their groceries home quickly.  Youngsters such as myself ran errands for mothers and grandmothers. We picked up milk and eggs but we were easily distracted by the penny candy counter.  Samry’s was cold inside as we moved through the door.  They cut fresh meat daily and we bought it right out of their big freezer.”

It’s titled “A Walk with My Father” written by Pam Mathews but based on the late 1940s and early 50s recollections of her father Donald Child.

So I had questions I wanted to answer on my trip to Brockton. What was the name of the store, when did the store open, when did it move? Is there a picture of the store, which was located in the Campello neighborhood? I also wanted to find an obituary for my grandfather, whose funeral I attended at the age of 4 in 1973. My sister Laurie had bad dreams about our “ugly” grandfather for years.

“I had nightmares of him chasing me for years because Grandma Samry made us all go to the funeral,” Laurie said, and shivered after she stopped talking about it. All this emotion from a girl who was weaned on Stephen King in her teen years still surfaces some 40 years later. At the grave side service, my sister Lynne and I amused ourselves with a game of hide and seek, using the only things available for hiding places, headstones and trees.

My wife Sue and I left Falmouth on a rainy afternoon took the Route 123 exit off the interstate and passed the fairgrounds, Thurber Ave, and DQ to the downtown branch of the Brockton Public Library. The library is celebrating 100 years. Andrew Carnegie funded the library in the city where Thomas Edison, in 1893 flipped the “on” switch to the city’s three wire underground electrical system. We walked in the side entrance and up a flight of stairs to the main level which has a two story open lobby with balconies on the second floor. The circulation desk was straight ahead as were the public bathrooms, which required a key to access. The keys were attached to plastic anti-theft DVD cases.

We went up to the second floor and I explained to the woman at the reference desk that I was doing some genealogy and local history research. All the public computer carrels, similar to my own library, were around the reference desk.

She asked me to sign in and Anne led the way to the local history room, unlocked it and I turned the small iron handle and entered. The room had a great view of Main Street and a large tree near the Main Street entrance to the library. Anne showed me poll tax records and property records, which unfortunately required township and range information. “Paula,” she said would be at the desk if I needed any further assistance. She showed me the card catalog for the collection, which has not been cataloged into a computer database yet, but there was a computer with access to in the room, which contained glassed enclosed shelves on three of the four exterior walls. She also pointed out the city directories, which quickly became my focus. Sue and I began in a disorderly way, at first, just grabbing volumes off the shelf. Then once I found the first reference to the store at 14 Market Street, we just moved year to year. 1926 was the first year his store was listed in the city directory. It was listed alphabetically and under the subject “provisions” in the back of the hardcover book. We moved year to year until 1940, which was missing and as far as we could tell not miss-shelved.

I went to the reference desk to inquire if any volumes were missing. It was busier than when I arrived. While I waited I watched two guys in white long sleeve button down oxford shirts with name tags and black dress pants watching a YouTube video.  “I’m a Mormon, athlete and amputee,” the title highlighted, and added, “I made my own leg.” It showed the guy mountain biking down single track trails. Then it cut to a crew-cut guy in the video talking into a camera while a ski lift took him to the top of a mountain in the summer. I couldn’t make out what he was saying and the Mormon watching the video had headphones on and his back to me, so I didn’t interrupt.  I turned back to the reference desk and met Paula who was unaware that volumes were missing but followed me into the history room to retrace my steps.

“I’ll go ask Anne,” she said.

She returned with bad news, that all the years are not in the collection.

So what we learned is that sometime between February, 1939 and May, 1941 the store moved from 14 Market Street to 1181 Main Street, literally around the corner in the Campello neighborhood. They continued to run the store until 1973 when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. He loved his cigars and would sneak a smoke whenever he could. He continued the puffing after the diagnosis despite the constant nagging of my grandmother. Sue also found her parents in the 1967 directory.

We left the history room. I sent Sue to the microfilm reader to look up my grandfather’s obituary, and I followed Paula to a staff closet that contained dozens of photographs in brown archival boxes. The boxes marked Main Street, South Main, Campello, people, and places didn’t turn up the smoking gun photo of either location of the Samry Market or of the man himself. The local history books by Acadia Publishing had nothing specific, but there was a nice section on neighborhood markets.

Sue did find the Joseph Francis Samry’s obituary in the Brockton Enterprise on July 24, 1973. He was 76. After Sue printed his obituary, a negative image, she also found her birth announcement. She was born in Brockton and moved to Rhode Island when she was three.    

The next day, we sprung my mom from the nursing home and went to her apartment. She gave me the videocassette of her wedding. This was converted from a film shot by her Uncle Irving. I told her I wanted to convert it to DVD and send her a copy. She also gave me her wedding photos which included pictures of my Grandpa Samry among the other family and friends in the wedding party. I never found any old photos of the store, but I did get a few more pictures of my grandfather including moving pictures of my family in my parents wedding video from 1953. He was always a serious man, who rarely smiled, but that few seconds of him grinning during the reception beats any still picture of the store.

What I learned about Grandpa Samry didn’t really sink in until a few days after I got back to Fairhope. I reread the obituary. “A native of Poland, he had resided in Brockton for many years and operated Samry’s Market in Campello for 47 years.” My Grandfather, a butcher, and mostly his wife Mary Walouke, (Waluke in the obituary) operated a successful market filled with expertly cut meats, bread, and penny candy for 47 years, longer than I’ve been alive.  To put this in perspective my sister Lynne has worked at Stop and Shop for 26 years. My brother Mark, minus a few detours, has worked at and managed grocery stores for over 35 years. I’ve only been working at the library for six years, but I’ve been writing for nearly 30. Writing has always been my art, a way to escape, express, and experiment through journaling, poetry, and stories.

The only thing our family has to show for all those years my grandparents owned the store is in the picture at the top of this page. They used the wooden stamp set to make display signs. When we were kids we used to take out the box of stamps and press them on the paper left in the box. It was butcher paper, brown, thick and coarse. I don’t remember having ink, so we used to just tamp the letters onto the paper, which left only faint imprints.

I’ve started using it again to make signs for events at the library. There is something very satisfying in hand tamping a sign. Like writing in cursive, it requires you to think while you compose because mistakes are costly and require starting over. When I’m using the set, I’m in an unhurried, creative space, full of words and letters. I’m keeping the tradition of stamping words, letters, and numbers on a page alive at a public library and when I send cards, flyers, and notes with stamped letters to friends and family.

I only remember one scene with Grandpa Samry, Lynne, and me in the store. He asked us to sweep up as he stood behind the counter and the giant gold cash register. The store shelves were sparsely stocked as we swept the stained wood and gray white vinyl floors. He left the store, which was attached to their two decker house. I don’t remember how long we swept, but I remember hearing his shuffling feet on the floors. Lynne swept the dust, crumbs, and wood shavings into the black dust pan I was holding, which was worn silver on the handle and at the open end. We did not exchange any words, at least none that left an impression. When we were done he handed us the last Hershey bar from the box under the counter.

As I work on the latest library sign at home, I grasp the S’s wooden handle firmly in my fingers, ink the stamp, and press it firmly on the page. As the fresh letter dries, I remember the sun shining in the plate glass windows of Grandpa’s store while Lynne and I swept that morning. Only now, as I ink the “h,” do I realize that the store was already closed.

My visit to the Brockton library revealed how Grandpa Samry’s life is the story of America and the antique wooden stamp set, a box of letters, numbers, punctuation and symbols is a family treasure linking generations. Although the only memory I have of the store is when it was closed forever, that is how long I plan to continue writing.