A mountain of books becomes a library of the land
by Susan J. TweitNames
Jeff Lee and Ann Martin
Bookseller and graphic artist
Claim to Fame
Founders of the Rocky Mountain Land Library
"This is just Jeff’s kind of project. I go day to day, he has the big vision."
"To really know the West, to be at home here," says Jeff Lee, "you’ve got to embed yourself in the region."
Lee, whose background in geology flavors his vocabulary, aims to help Westerners know the region through the 12,000 books that crowd the Denver duplex he shares with his wife, Ann Martin. The books are the foundation of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, a resource Lee and Martin have created to link Western land and community.
Lee grew up in Connecticut and headed west to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for college, where he majored in geology and biology, despite "natural leanings to the humanities." After graduating, he spent a year working in a steel casings factory before he landed a position revising topographic maps for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Denver office. To his delight, the work allowed him to explore the West, but the job "was kind of rootless," he says.
Lee eventually settled in Denver, where he decided to pursue his other passion, books. He became the bargain-book buyer for Denver’s Tattered Cover, one of the West’s largest independent booksellers. Ann Martin, who was raised in Colorado Springs, works at the same bookstore, as a graphic designer.
Lee’s lust for books, especially those about natural history and the West — together with his inability to pass up a deal — explains how the couple amassed an estimated quarter-million dollars’ worth of books. The volumes are stacked to the ceiling in the basement and spare bedroom of their small house. "We used to go to the Denver Public Library’s annual sale," recalls Lee. "You could buy bags of books for almost nothing."
The couple simply collected until, on an international buying trip to the London Book Fair, they stayed at St. Deiniol’s, a Welsh "residential library" that gives visitors a bed near the books. While there, Martin had a vision for a similar facility back home: "We could do this in Colorado." But Lee and Martin lacked both money and real estate. Lee decided the way to their own residential library was to start with their personal collection.
Thus was born the Rocky Mountain Land Library, an organization with a simple mission: to encourage greater awareness of the land. Lee approached the Tattered Cover to house its first programs, a series of talks featuring authors of books related to the Land Library’s mission.
Three years and nearly 150 programs later, the Rocky Mountain Land Series has hosted the likes of Peter Matthiessen, Ann Zwinger, and Stewart Udall; received an award from the Environmental Protection Agency; and established a rural offshoot, the "Artists @ Work" series of talks in tiny Salida, Colo.
Although the Land Library still lacks a site, small grants fund classroom programs in several schools and a "Conversation on the Land" series with Colorado State University. Last fall, it also began offering residencies, in donated Salida lodgings, to artists and authors working on land-study projects.
Salida may prove to be the "angel" Lee and Martin have been waiting for. This spring, a group of volunteers will move the first truckload of books from Lee and Martin’s basement to the Salida Regional Library for cataloging, storage, and perhaps limited public access, in anticipation that the Land Library will find its permanent home in the area.
Will Lee and Martin miss their literary housemates? Definitely not, says Lee. "This is what we’ve been working for. We’ll open a bottle of champagne to celebrate — and we’ll finally have room for a toast!"
The author writes from Salida, Colorado. Her latest book is The Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide.
© High Country News