Out & About: Newport, NH, library’s two cats are worth checking out

  • Minerva, a Maine Coon kitten, looks out the window at Richards Free Library in Newport, N.H., on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. The library adopted two cats, Minerva and Dexter, from the Springfield Humane Society in Springfield, Vt., on August 4 and invited patrons to vote on their names. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

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    Dexter, a three-year-old tabby cat, lies on the counter while Sandy Greenwood, left, of Newport, N.H., talks to library director Justine Fafara as she checks out DVDs at Richards Free Library in Newport, N.H., on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. "Everybody knows I like cats," said Greenwood, who was greeted at the door by Dexter. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/4/2021 8:59:48 PM
Modified: 9/4/2021 8:59:48 PM

The Richards Free Library in Newport is a magnificent building. The three-story Colonial Revival home has large, curved windows and intricate molding under more windows on the third floor that look out onto downtown Newport. Inside, the space welcomes natural light. A dark curved staircase and massive fireplace on the first floor remind you that it once was a family home.

The building, which is also home to the Library Arts Center, is without a doubt one of my favorite in the Upper Valley.

And now there’s another reason to visit. Meet Dexter and Minerva, the two newest staff members at the library and — based on my research — the only library cats in the Upper Valley. (If there are others, please let me know. I would love to meet them.)

“The cats are definitely the talk of the town right now,” library director Justine Fafara told me when I visited Tuesday.

Since the cats’ arrival, some people have stopped by to meet the cats and got library cards as a result.

Minerva, a Maine coon mix, is around 9 months old and Dexter, a short-haired tabby, is around 3 years old. Patrons and others on social media got to vote on their names. Minerva — named after Professor Minerva McGonagall, a Harry Potter character who can morph into a tabby cat — is a little on the shy side and tends to avoid spots in the library where things can get loud, such as children’s story times. Dexter, named after the library’s founder Dexter Richards, is more outgoing.

“He’s like the mayor of the library,” Fafara said as Dexter greeted me during my visit last Tuesday. “He loves meeting everyone.”

The cats’ home base since they joined the staff is assistant director Sally Bernier’s office, where there is a litter box, food and a plethora of toys including purple boas that hang from the handles on filing cabinets. They wear bells on their collars to inform visitors of their presence.

A sign on the library’s front door reads, “Be careful not to let the cats out! (No matter what they tell you).” A cat tree, donated by a patron, sits nearby in the foyer. The fireplace is now the home of a unicorn-themed cat bed topped by a sparkling horn.

No taxpayer dollars will be spent, and money for the cats’ care will come from the Friends of the Library in addition to donations. A donation jar is on the main desk for anyone who wants to contribute to the cats’ care.

The library even has an official job description with eight bullet points. The first is to “reduce stress for humans”; the last is “help with fundraising.”

“Everyone’s biggest concern is allergies,” Fafara said. Yet there’s only been a single complaint.

The library is 16,000 square feet and the cats have access to all of it, save a computer room where they are banned. During the pandemic, the library also upgraded its HVAC system, which has led to better air circulation. Patrons with allergies can also call ahead and ask for the cats to be moved to the library staff’s offices, or request that the books they want to check out be wiped down.

“They haven’t been destructive at all,” Bernier said.

The idea to get a library cat came from Molly DiPadova, a college student who works summers at the library as an assistant, and had been angling for a cat since her days as a library page in high school.

“Cats and books just seem to go well together to me,” DiPadova said.

When Fafara started her role as library director last March, she was open to the idea, but wanted to do her research first. The Board of Trustees gave their support. So, too, did the library’s insurance company, which said any cat-related injuries would be treated like any other claim.

“That, I thought, was going to be our stumbling block,” Fafara said of the insurance question.

DiPadova documented the process on the library’s TikTok page in a series of short, humorous videos. The first features her asking Fafara to get a cat. Subsequent videos show the naming contest, a shelter visit and the cats settling into their new roles.

“The staff has been completely on board,” Fafara said. “Everyone on our staff loves cats. We definitely wouldn’t have done with this without their 100% buy-in.”

Once they had approval, Fafara and DiPadova went to the Springfield (Vt.) Humane Society to meet Minerva, where she was in a room with Dexter, whom she was clearly attached to.

“How do we split them up?” Fafara remembered thinking, which was followed by “we can’t go back with two cats. I’ll get in trouble if I bring back two cats.”

Fafara went with her instinct and scooped the bonded pair up. After watching them wrestle on Bernier’s floor, “it was definitely the right call,” she said. Dexter and Minerva keep each other company at night when the rest of the staff goes home.

“We’ve had so many people come in who saw on Facebook that we had cats and they’d never been in the library before,” DiPadova said, including families.

It was the first time the Springfield Humane Society had a request for library cats, said Anne Eddy, the nonprofit organization’s executive director.

“We think it’s wonderful. That’s where they belong,” Eddy said. “It just works for everyone. The cats get all the attention they could ever ask for, and someone we know is going to be responsible for them. To me, it just adds so much charm and character to any place.”

Dexter and Minerva aren’t the only library cats in New Hampshire, though they are among the few. Louie has been the resident library cat at the Freedom Public Library in Carroll County for most of his 18 years and is now semi-retired. Louie lives across the street with his owner, library director Elizabeth Rhymer, who herself is retiring.

“They are just so happy to see him. It’s not just kids, it’s adults,” Rhymer said. “There are some people who come in and say, ‘Where’s Louie?’ ”

When he first joined the staff around 2004, someone made an anonymous complaint to the board of trustees stating their worries that Louie would be destructive and concerns about people who have allergies. That prompted a group of girls to start a petition in support of Louie, and the trustees decided to put a sign on the door informing patrons when Louie was in residence.

“Nobody has ever complained and it’s always been fine,” Rhymer said. “Sometimes the people with allergies are the ones who love him the most.”

In his younger years, Louie could be found lounging on the main desk and greeting patrons as they entered. Now he is going deaf and has trouble jumping as high as he used to.

“He’s just decided, ‘My library days are over,’ ” Rhymer said.

One of the reasons the staff at Richards Free Library decided to adopt Minerva and Dexter was the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other organizations in the area, library staff have had to adapt services when the doors were physically shut and then, once it reopened, how to keep the space safe for patrons. The cats — and the joy they’ve brought patrons and staff alike — have helped lessen the stress.

“It just makes people happy,” Rhymer said. “We need more of that, don’t you think?”

More library pets

When doing research for this column, I reached out to Amy Lappin, past president of the New Hampshire Library Association and deputy director of the Lebanon Public Libraries, to ask if she knew of other libraries in the area with cats. She posed the question to a New Hampshire librarian Listserv and while Lappin didn’t find any other cats, she did discover that:

■The Pope Memorial Library in North Conway has two dogs that don’t live at the library, but work for food there three to four days per week.

■The Oscar Foss Memorial Library in Barnstead has two guinea pigs that live at the library and a neighborhood cat that visits frequently.

■The Exeter Public Library has a guinea pig named Dewey and a tortoise named LC.

■The Mary E. Bartlett Library in Brentwood has a saltwater fish tank cared for by a generous patron who donated the tank, supplies and ongoing care.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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