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Town Meeting: Author Salinger’s widow offers former Cornish store for new library building

  • Colleen O’Neill stands and looks around the basement of the Cornish General Store in Cornish, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. O’Neill is the property owner. She and business owner Mark Abrams will reopen the store in the coming months. The basement was formerly used as an archery range, among other things, but will be used as a storage space for the general store. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Mac Snyder

  • After purchasing lunch, electricians Rob Richardson, left, of Gilmanton, N.H., and Andy Sanborn, of Sanbornton, N.H., leave the newly reopened Cornish General Store in Cornish, N.H., on Thursday, March 23, 2017. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jovelle Tamayo

  • Property owner Colleen O’Neill and store owner Mark Abrams stand in front of the Cornish General Store on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Cornish, N.H. O’Neill, widow of “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger, has offered to donate the store building, which has been closed since 2017, to be converted into a library. The offer was announced at Town Meeting on Tuesday. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Mac Snyder

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/8/2021 7:50:43 PM
Modified: 6/8/2021 8:01:34 PM

CORNISH — Town Meeting in Cornish ended with a jolt of literary excitement on Tuesday as library trustees announced that Colleen O’Neill, widow of author J.D. Salinger, is offering to donate the former Cornish General Store to the town to be converted into a new library.

“A library can be that vital place that helps our community thrive,” O’Neill said in a letter read aloud by a friend at Town Meeting. “Libraries today are more than just about books. They are about connecting us to the wider world, serving the community and creating a sense of place. What I love about this town, what I love about Cornish, is that when help is needed, this community comes together. It is what makes Cornish so amazing and so special.”

Members of the Selectboard and about half of the 90 people at the meeting greeted the news with a standing ovation, though Town Moderator Gwyn Gallagher also clarified that no official action on the offer was under consideration at the Town Meeting.

The current library, the George H. Stowell Free Library, which is also in Cornish Flat, was built around 1910 and lacks off-street parking and running water. There is a composting toilet in the basement, but it is accessible only by steep stairs, library trustee Laura Cousineau said after the meeting. She also said it is not ADA-compliant, with steep concrete steps in the front.

O’Neill’s letter noted that “there is excitement and delight to consider making the Cornish Store a new space for our library, one that has — very importantly — indoor plumbing, accessibility and plenty of parking.”

Cousineau said trustees were likely to meet “right away” to discuss the offer from O’Neill, who was not at Town Meeting herself.

“We need a new place and this is possibly an answer to our prayers,” Cousineau said.

O’Neill has been active in Cornish civic life for years and bought the general store, which had been empty for a few years, in 2016. It reopened as a general store in 2017 but closed about 18 months later.

She also made news at Town Meeting in 2010, two months after her husband had died at 91, thanking the town for respecting the reclusive author’s privacy for decades.

“This was the best place for him to live,” O’Neill said of Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, who was known for avoiding the public eye.

The news of her offer followed a lively floor meeting that included extensive debate over whether to establish a renewable energy/energy conservation capital reserve fund and appropriate $1,000 for the fund. The Selectboard opposed the petitioned article, and Selectman Lyle Parry said when Cornish’s energy committee was formed, it was done so with the understanding that it would not impose any monetary charges on the town. Parry also said that before getting solar panels the town should work on making buildings energy-efficient.

“I really feel like this was thrown at the wall to see if it sticks,” Parry said.

But Cornish resident Richard Thompson, who helped get the measure on the warrant, said the town needs to both reduce energy consumption and minimize its production of greenhouse gases.

“We’ve been ignoring what’s going on in this world and it’s time we open our eyes and look around,” Thompson said.

After extensive debate and a voice vote that was too close to call, the proposal was defeated, 49-41.

All other spending measures passed, but there was also some debate over a proposal to have the town demand that the Legislature “ensure fair and effective representation of New Hampshire voters without gerrymandering” as they carry out redistricting.

Cornish resident Judith Kaufman, who has been active with Sullivan County Democrats, noted that the proposal was non-binding and had already been passed in more than 60 New Hampshire communities to date. The article passed on a voice vote with a few dissenters.

Police Chief Doug Hackett, discussing his department’s budget, said Cornish will likely face some new expenses down the road to outfit officers with body cameras and to store the digital footage.

In contested races being decided by Australian ballot voting, longtime Selectboard member John Hammond was being challenged by Dillon Gallagher. Polls closed at 7 p.m.

Jasmine Taudvin can be reached at

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