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Cornish weighs renovating old library, moving it to former store after Salinger widow’s offer

  • Library volunteer Caroline Storrs, right, waves to Michael Edward, of Cornish, not pictured, as his wife Lauren and son Leo, 1, leave the George H. Stowell Free Library on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. The town has discussed adding running water, septic and an accessible entrance to the building in recent years, and Cornish resident Colleen O'Neill has offered to donate the vacant general store she owns for use as the town's library. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos — James M. Patterson

  • Kimberly Patterson, of Cornish, browses the biographies at the George H. Stowell Free Library in Cornsih Flat, N.H., on Wednesday, June 17, 2021. Colleen O'Neill, owner of the vacant general store nearby has offered the building as a space to relocate the town's library. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A collection of leather-bound books is shelved in the basement of the George H. Stowell Free Library, in Cornish Flat, N.H., on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Library Trustee Kathi Patterson, right, searches old Cornish Town Reports with Selectboard member Dillon Gallagher for information on the history of the George H. Stowell Free Library in the basement of the building in Cornish, N.H., Wednesday, June 16., 2021. The town approved the building of the library in 1910 and it remains without running water, septic or accessibility for people with disabilities. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Jim Smith and his son Justin complete their Saturday morning routine of errands with a stop at the Cornish General Store in Cornish Flat, N.H., on Feb. 7, 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/18/2021 10:12:32 PM
Modified: 6/18/2021 10:13:09 PM

CORNISH FLAT — Earlier this spring, Caroline Storrs sent an email to the Cornish Board of Library Trustees that enumerated the deficiencies of the town’s 110-year-old library.

She later met with the trustees and made a suggestion: Why not see if the library could use the former Cornish General Store?

“It had a solution to all those deficiencies the library was experiencing,” Storrs said this week.

She also contacted Colleen O’Neill, who has owned the store building since August 2016. That led to a meeting at the store between O’Neill and the trustees.

“We had an eye on maybe there was a part of that building we could rent out,” Laura Cousineau, one of the three library trustees, said in an interview. By the end of the meeting, O’Neill said she’d be willing to donate the building as a library and community center.

That offer surfaced in public at Town Meeting last week, and on Monday evening, O’Neill, Storrs and the library trustees met with the Cornish Selectboard, where everyone acknowledged that O’Neill’s offer shows great promise and that the town is at the beginning of a long process to understand the details.

At the outset, though, a couple of things seem clear. There’s real eagerness in Cornish for an accessible building that could serve as both a library and a gathering place, something the town’s 110-year-old G.H. Stowell Free Library can’t do. And O’Neill, who has long been a quiet benefactor in Cornish, is becoming a more public figure, at least within the friendly and protective confines of her town, which has a population of about 1,600.

“I like to stay under the radar,” O’Neill said in an interview.

But her desire to make the former store serve a purpose in her community is inherently public. Cornish has offered her a private life, and she has privately supported her town. The library proposal is in keeping with her earlier, less public efforts, Storrs said.

“I think it’s all of a piece,” Storrs said. “And I think that she’s getting more comfortable with seeing how she can help with so many different things.”

The library trustees have tried to improve the Stowell Library before.

Built in 1910 and named for a native son who made good in business in Claremont, served in the New Hampshire Legislature and wanted to do something for his hometown, the Stowell Library is in nearly original condition.

Like many other libraries of its era, it’s elevated above street level, a building to look up to. That lofty perch makes it hard to bring into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would be required if any other renovation takes place. And the small patch of land it sits on along School Street in Cornish Flat leaves no room for water and septic service.

The library trustees tried to come up with a plan a decade ago, when it would have been a part of a wave of library renovations in the Upper Valley. Over the past 30 years or so, the vast majority of public libraries have been renovated and often expanded, as libraries have become meeting places, rather than just repositories for books.

“Just recently, we decided to give it a go again,” Richard Scheuer, president of the trustees, said.

Over the past year or so, the trustees have made a deal, which is now on hold, to buy enough land from an abutter to install a well and a septic system, which would furnish the library with running water. It currently has a composting toilet in the basement, down a flight of steep, narrow stairs.

Even if the library trustees were to solve those problems, the building would still require extensive work to be made accessible to the disabled, and it would still be too small for meetings, children’s programs and a more robust collection, the trustees said.

“You could put half a million into that building and still not have what you want,” said Cousineau, a semi-retired librarian who worked at Duke University and at Dartmouth, where she was director of the biomedical libraries from 2012-17.

Even so, the project had built some momentum before Storrs, a retired Cornish Elementary School teacher who volunteers at the library, connected the trustees to O’Neill a couple of weeks ago.

Cornish resident Peggy Mayette has pledged $30,000 toward the project, though she said Monday that she’d be happy for it to go toward whatever library project the town decides to pursue. And the trustees have nearly $70,000 set aside in capital reserves.

The number of questions that need to be sifted through if the library is to move is considerable.

“I think it’s a great idea and I think there’s so many uses for the building,” Selectboard member Lyle Parry said in Monday’s meeting. The board and the library trustees plan to form an exploratory committee to study the ramifications.

Cornish residents are going to know what, if anything, the project might cost. There are two apartments in the building, and O’Neill said it’s important to her that they remain, since they provide affordable housing.

In that case, what would it mean for the town to be a landlord? “In the past, the town hasn’t been in the rental business,” Parry noted.

Cornish residents also would have to decide what to do with the former library. Many feel it would make a good home for the Cornish Historical Society, which stores materials in the library’s basement because its current home, a brick building next door, is too small.

A new and more useful library also would likely be open more than the 10 hours a week the current library is available. That might also carry a cost.

And would the proposal mean that the town won’t have another store?

The store closed in 2013, then reopened in 2017 after O’Neill purchased the building and found someone to lease it and run it, only to close again 18 months later. At the second closing, in September 2018, it seemed clear that the prospects for a store in that location were not promising. Without gas pumps, it’s hard for a small store to survive, and it faced competition from Meriden Deli-Mart, just a few miles north on Route 120, and stores in Claremont. The store served as an informal community meeting place.

“Cornish is sort of spaced out,” Storrs said. “We don’t have a typical town center.”

The process of reviewing what the building could be used for slowed during 2019, while O’Neill dealt with the death of her mother, in Florida, and of Paul Bruhn, the former director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, whom she’d been dating for the previous four years.

She held a couple of community meetings in December 2019. “We made a list of probably 40 things we could do in this building,” she said. That winter the community held a couple of potluck dinners and a game night, “just ways to bring people together, to connect,” O’Neill said.

Then the coronavirus pandemic came along.

Right now, the building is home to a small showroom for LaPan’s Antique Stoves, a shop operated by Plainfield resident Dana LaPan. He moved a number of stoves into the store space itself last winter, when he couldn’t get into a garage he uses for storage.

After loading stoves into his truck on Wednesday, LaPan said he’d called O’Neill to express interest in buying the building on the same day she’d offered to give the store for a library and community center.

“It was a pretty quiet, one-sided conversation for a little while,” he said.

Cornish isn’t overburdened with commercial enterprises, and town ownership would take the store off the tax rolls.

“Certainly that would be a factor,” Dillon Gallagher, a newly elected Selectboard member, said in a phone interview. But only one factor among many others, he noted.

“I think it’s wide open right now,” he said. “It could be a great opportunity. It’s a very generous offer. But nobody knows anything yet.”

For her part, O’Neill would like to see the store become a gathering place for the community. It has a long porch facing a triangular patch of lawn across the road.

“Taking the library that’s there and making the general store building into the Cornish library and community center, because it’s so large, could be a wonderful asset to this community,” she told the Selectboard on Monday.

During her ownership she has updated the septic, put in a new well and paved the parking lot. She also noted that the apartment rents more than cover the building’s tax bill.

O’Neill is probably best known for her marriage to J.D. Salinger, the celebrated writer who died in 2010. He had moved to Cornish in 1953 and she has lived in town for 33 years. The power of his work and his reclusiveness have inspired a devoted following that sometimes crosses the line into intrusiveness, and Cornish residents are famous for misdirecting people who were searching for him.

To her fellow Cornish residents, O’Neill is better known for her generosity to the town. Among other good works, she started Connect Cornish, a town email newsletter; helped with the restoration of the Meetinghouse, a stone’s throw from the store; has been active with the Cornish Fair; and maintains walking trails for town residents, in addition to trying to get the store going again.

“I really love this community,” she said. “I would say it’s a remarkable place.”

In 2019, O’Neill needed to get the store cleaned up. She could have paid someone to do it, but instead asked people in town for help. Thirty people showed up with buckets and mops and brooms, she said. They cleaned, but also caught up over coffee and doughnuts.

“I put the word out and people showed up,” she said. “How fun is that?”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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