For 42 years, Nancy Hemmingway gave life to the Inverness library

David Briggs
Nancy Hemmingway, who co-founded the Dance Palace, has worked as the head Inverness librarian for 42 years. She will retire at the end of March, saying goodbye to a life centered around books and their readers—into whose personalities she was afforded a unique glimpse.

Nancy Hemmingway has been the Inverness librarian longer than the Inverness library has been at its current location. After 42 years tending the community’s books and readers, she will be retiring at the end of this month.

“She’s devoted more than half her life to this community, in more ways than one,” said Bonny White, the library’s West Marin branch manager. “Nancy is irreplaceable. She’s one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met in my life, either in library service or out of it. We have been so lucky.” Sara Jones, the director of the Marin County Free Library, described her as “an enormous community treasure.”

A former substitute teacher in Oakland and Petaluma, Ms. Hemmingway came to the area as one of the founders of the Dance Palace. Looking for some part-time work, she took the job as a librarian in 1972. 

She was glad to be working with such a range of ages. Her first summer she put up black plastic over the windows and projected movies “reel to reel” for the kids. Another day, one of the volunteers had donated a children’s rocking chair, and one boy was so entranced that he would not get up after story time had ended. 

“So, I checked it out to them,” Ms. Hemmingway laughed. She’s watched the village children grow up, some of them taking their first steps between the shelves.

Back then, the Inverness library was situated in a tiny, 270-square-foot building owned by the service station Drakes Highway Garage. It was considered the smallest free-standing library in the country, yet somehow they managed to cram in 3,138 books. In 1981, the American Library Association sent a photographer and a model to pose in the doorway; it was featured on the cover of their February magazine. Ms. Hemmingway says she wasn’t working that day and smiles, as if to hint that had she been on duty, she might have upstaged the model and been on that cover, too.

Back then, the library’s holdings were kept in a cabinet of card catalogs and records of each loan were made with a carbon copy imprint machine; michrofiche, when it arrived, was a technological breakthrough! (She jokes that many patrons now do her old job and request their own books or use the self-checkout machines.) It wouldn’t be until the library moved to the current location that its stock was finally added to the computer system at the Civic Center; they were the last and sometimes felt like “a little step -sister to the other libraries.”

What was best about that location was its location directly on the water. “You could look right out and see what was happening on the bay,” Ms. Hemmingway, an avid swimmer, remembers. The birds flocking and departing. The slow change in tides.

In 1982, the little library’s location by the creek meant it was overwhelmed by a flood. “It rained and rained and rained for days, a deluge,” she said. “I was standing at the kitchen sink and I watched this wall of brown water carrying a tree, a house, all manner of debris.” The librarians laid out banks of sandbags to cross the floodwaters and covered the floors with plastic that required constant sweeping to keep the library open.

After historian Jack Mason gifted his house for the library and a museum—a surprisingly gracious act for a curmudgeon who had been critical of organizations, Ms. Hemmingway remembers—the library moved up the block in 1986. She and others had to raise a whopping $260,000 for the renovations to reinforce the floors to hold the weight of the book stacks and put in new electricity; the community got behind the project, she says, and the fixes were made. 

In Art Rogers’ picture of moving day, Ms. Hemmingway is smiling in the sunlight and showing off, of course, two books: Stephen Birmingham’s “California Rich,” a social history of the state’s wealthiest families, and Alaistair Cooke’s “The Americans,” essays about living through the decade from 1969 to 1979. 

Over the years, the shelves have changed. The villagers still love their murder mysteries and detective fiction, but now there are more female authors. Interesting locals introduce her to new topics and writers, too. 

“It’s fascinating what people have done, where they’ve been, what they’re interested in, what kind of books they request and take out,” Ms. Hemmingway says. After you’ve requested enough, Ms. Hemmingway can pinpoint recommendations and maybe even your personality. Some have “very acute desires” in pursuing a topic; the others—she spreads her arms wildly, looking for the word—“a real smorgasbord.”

“It’s a place where people are really open about themselves,” she said. “I might try a book and recommend it to somebody else. People who might not have other things in common might share the same enthusiasm for a particular author or genre.” 

One of Ms. Hemmingway’s most memorable traditions started almost a decade ago: her Wednesday morning tea and coffee. After the ladies of the Inverness Garden Club had finished work, they always used to purchase coffee from the market; Ms. Hemmingway felt bad they had to spend money after volunteering, so she started serving them coffee. And if you’re going to have coffee, you might as well have tea, she explained, and if you have drinks, you might as well have snacks, too. Each week you’ll find people reading the newspaper, snacking and socializing around the cherished tradition.

At the end of the month a long chapter in the Inverness story will end. She’s ready to take classes and learn more about her varied interests—jazz, dance, singing, qigong. Ms. Hemmingway said you’ll still be able to find her helping with the library’s garden and afterwards, enjoying coffee. Or you might spot her curled up at a chair inside, nose deep in a good book.

“Even though it was just 31 hours a week, it seems like a lot sometimes,” she said. “I’ll be 72 next month. It’s been a real vocation, a lifestyle, and now I get to branch out.”