From a tribute cocktail once served at Capitol Hill’s now-shuttered Redwood to the Pacific Northwest streams he fished in as a boy, it’s easy to trace the lingering influence of Tacoma-born writer Richard Brautigan if you know where to look. Though known for depicting San Francisco’s counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s with surrealistic flair, you’ll find one of his greatest legacies on three bookcases in the basement of Vancouver’s Clark County Historical Museum.
Known as the Brautigan Library, the collection spans family histories, absurd Brautigan-esque capers, DIY religious tracts and memoirs of ordinary lives. They don’t feel like books at all, really, so much as the complete, unfiltered contents of other people’s minds. And they all have one thing in common: They’re unpublished.
That’s the collection’s only requirement, pulled from Brautigan’s 1971 novel “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966,” a story set in a library whose sole purpose is to house unpublished work — “the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.”
The 300-plus volumes in the Brautigan Library are private creations made publicly accessible, thanks to an impractical fictional concept that became an impractical reality, and resisted oblivion through persistence, grief and — in true Brautigan fashion — a series of odd, benevolent coincidences.
When I visited the Brautigan Library in February, I couldn’t stop thinking of a passage from “Trout Fishing in America,” perhaps Brautigan’s best-known work, that compares a bookstore to a graveyard:
“Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them …”
The books I encountered, crouched on the floor in that vaguely antiseptic-smelling basement, ran a fierce gamut. I opened their covers and looked inside, and right there on the smudged-looking photocopied pages were the private sadnesses and obsessions and daydreams and personal soapboxes of hundreds of people I’d never met.
Some stood out for their titles alone. My favorite was Alyce Cornyn-Selby’s “Did She Leave Me Any Money? A philosophical comedy about men, money, motivation, winning strategies, architecture, nudism, trucking, corporate assassinations, heart attacks, sexual politics, hometown parades, Spiritual Warriors, and the dredging of Willapa Bay” (shelved in “Humor,” acquired in 1990).
I read entirely more than I’d planned to of Leo Witz’s “Strive for Mediocrity Even If It Is Beyond You: The Memoirs of Leo Witz.” Despite its title and dry humor, it is a love story, in which Witz recounts the ways his marriage “makes the involvements of Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet come off as rather bland friendships” (shelved in “Family,” acquired in 1992). I thumbed through a very short book about learning to sail (Philip Lewis Preston’s “Furled,” only seven pages, shelved in “Adventure,” acquired in 1990).
Herbert M. Lockwood’s “Floating Space Duck” (shelved in “Humor,” acquired 1990) had whimsical intergalactic cartoon illustrations. One of many memoirists, Barbara Gale wrote of her life story, “If you enjoy seeing an old twisted healthy tree, you may enjoy my story” (shelved in “Meaning of Life,” acquired in 1995). In a book simply titled “Chapterbook” by Stuart Chaulk, the author bemoaned that “I would prefer nothing to happen in Chapter 5. Too late. It is rife with meaning I did not intend” (shelved in “War and Peace,” acquired 1991).
The rows of manuscripts are punctuated with little cardboard printouts of mayonnaise jars, a nod to the collection’s cataloging technique, known as the Mayonnaise system.
The name is a reference to the last line of “Trout Fishing in America.” (“Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.”)
When Richard Brautigan died in 1984, control of his literary estate fell to his daughter, Ianthe Brautigan Swensen. A writer and instructor at Sonoma State University (she’s the baby who appears throughout “Trout Fishing in America”), she was then in her 20s, married, and doing well “in a young kind of person way,” she says, when, “all of the sudden … I was grieving this man who I loved so much and was a very complex person.”
After Brautigan’s death, his daughter started getting letters from a man named Todd Lockwood, who wanted to build a real-life version of the library in “The Abortion.” At first she was hesitant, but she was struck by his kindness and eventually gave her approval.
“[H]e was so lovely and the reason he was so lovely — and this brings tears to my eyes — he had just gone through incredible loss himself,” she says.
Lockwood had lost a brother and a sister in two years. Last December, on an episode of “This American Life,” he explained that grief, catalyzed by a chance viewing of the movie “Field of Dreams” (“If you build it, he will come”), pushed him to make his longtime dream of building the library a reality.
His request was also different from most of the ones Brautigan Swensen had fielded since her father’s death. Brautigan had died by suicide, and most of the media coverage at the time had focused on that. Lockwood’s was the first proposal Brautigan Swensen received that reminded her of the person her father had been.
“All of the sudden, I was like, ‘Right, this is the father that I remember,’ ” she says. “And right after my dad died, I was so — obviously — devastated and I thought in my mind that I’d lost him forever, and I picked up one of his books and there he was.”
The Brautigan Library, she says, helped her to heal. Lockwood tells me it helped him, too. It even houses a memorial; “Floating Space Duck” is the work of Lockwood’s brother.
The narrator of “The Abortion” is the collection’s librarian, a man whose sole purpose is to welcome manuscripts. He is available to new authors at all hours of the day. He considers it his mission “To make the person and the book feel wanted.”
In 1990, Lockwood took on this role. His Brautigan Library, based in Burlington, Vermont, operated as a nonprofit. At its peak, he says, it had about 100 volunteer librarians and attracted visitors from out of town.
But in 1997, it closed due to lack of funding, and the manuscripts were put in storage in Lockwood’s basement.
This caught the attention of John Barber, a faculty member in the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at Washington State University, Vancouver, who had once studied under Brautigan.
He found space for the collection at the Clark County Historical Museum, and the library was moved and reopened in 2010. The manuscripts in the library date from the Vermont years: 1990-96. In 2013, it began accepting manuscripts again, but only electronically; there’s not enough space to keep accumulating paper volumes.
Barber says he received an influx of manuscripts after the story about the Brautigan Library aired on “This American Life.” So far, 12 have been submitted in 2019.
If you aren’t instantly charmed by the library in “The Abortion,” a question may occur to you: Why would anyone write something if there’s a chance no one will ever read it?
Barber’s simplest answer — the one that doesn’t include mortality — is that regardless of their ability to access traditional modes of publishing, the people who submitted to the Brautigan Library “felt that they had something to say.”
Today, ordinary people can share their thoughts publicly through social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, blogging and online publishing, says Barber. But in the early 1990s there were few places writers could share work “without having to ask for permission, without having to have anybody approve it, and without generally paying a lot of money.”
Creating space for anyone to publish was also very much in line with the literary environment Brautigan was reacting to, one characterized by broad antagonism toward counterculture and the rise of self-publishing. It was a time, points out Brautigan Swensen, characterized by attacks on independent publishing, like the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the censorship and police seizure of Lenore Kandel’s “The Love Book,” and the arrests of performers in Michael McClure’s play “The Beard.”
“All of these things are happening and sometimes my dad got the brunt of that, and I’m wondering if the library wasn’t his response to the … pushback or the backlash of ‘How dare people self-publish?’ ‘How dare people, you know, think that they can change the existing forms of writing at that particular time?” she says. “And then at the same time there was an incredible sense of openness … you know, when ‘Trout Fishing in America’ came out, all these hunting and fishing stores ordered copies.”
In a similar spirit, the Brautigan Library made publishing accessible to anyone. Lockwood calls it “a much more democratic version of a library,” one where “Everything is allowed to go on the shelf.”
The library’s most prolific contributor was a chemical engineer, chess champion and World War II veteran named Albert Helzner, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, who submitted 16 manuscripts. Helzner died in 2016, and his daughter, Ronnee-Sue Helzner, is currently piecing together the literary legacy he left behind. “What I hope to do with at least some of his writing is continue his quest to get some of it published,” she says.
Barber also sees publication as one way people try to evade death. Everyone dies, he says, but “as long as we remember that person, as long as we can recall what they said or something that they did, we keep them alive, so to speak. We keep their memory alive.”
“This is a beautiful library, timed perfectly, lush and American,” wrote Richard Brautigan in the opening lines of “The Abortion.”
The library that inspired these words was real: the Presidio branch of the San Francisco Public Library, a Carnegie library.
If coincidences seem to follow the saga of the Brautigan Library, the collection’s new location comes with two. The first is that Vancouver bridges the two major sites of Brautigan’s boyhood: Washington and Oregon. The second is that Clark County Historical Museum was Vancouver’s original public library, and like the Presidio branch, it was also a Carnegie library.
“In its physical presence it is very much the same as the library described in Brautigan’s novel,” says Barber. “The high arched windows, the steps, the lamps of learning on either side of the heavy doors, these are the same in the Vancouver Clark County Historical Museum and the fictional library.”
There remains one key difference. No one ever reads the books in “The Abortion.” But if you visit in person, you can read everything in the Brautigan Library. Admission is $5, collected at the front desk. Then you turn a corner and follow a flight of stairs that pass under a sign telling you not to take pictures. At the bottom, you sign your name in a ledger, and there they are, at your service, for however long you want them: “the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.”
When I asked John Barber why it was so important that these volumes be accessible to readers, he referred back to Brautigan.
In “The Abortion,” Barber points out, the library’s one-sidedness is a conceit that allows a separate narrative to unfold. The librarian doesn’t stay in the library forever. He falls in love. When his girlfriend has an unintended pregnancy, the librarian goes with her to Tijuana, where she can have an abortion, a procedure illegal in some states at the time of the book’s publication. The library’s magic doesn’t lie in its closed circuit, but in its ability to facilitate and nurture relationships.
“In the process of all of this, the librarian learns how to leave the library, and learns how to go out into the world and interact with other people,” says Barber. “And so he and his girlfriend, Vida, they leave the library and a new librarian comes in to take over, so what is Brautigan saying there? I’m not certain … but I would surmise that he’s talking about the importance of human interaction, that books can begin that interaction, but ultimately the best interaction might happen when people actually talk face to face and share ideas.”
That was something Brautigan himself inspired. “That was an ongoing thing. I mean, he inspired second graders,” says Brautigan Swensen. “I have a whole group of poems that an entire second-grade class wrote him about ‘Please Plant This Book,’ and if you saw the ephemera that people have sent me it’s just stunning … and they’re very earnest: ‘Dear Mr. Brautigan, these are our poems.’ He was inspiring people all the time.”
As for the Brautigan Library, she says, “I think my dad would’ve just loved that.”