St. Deiniol’s, a castlelike residential library in the Welsh countryside now called the Gladstone Library, served as the model for the Rocky Mountain Land Library.
SOUTH PARK, Colo. —
The project is striking in its ambition: a sprawling research institution on a ranch at 10,000 feet above sea level, outfitted with 32,000 volumes, many of them about the Rocky Mountain region, plus artists’ studios, dormitories and a dining hall, a place for academics, birders, hikers and others to study and savor the West.
It is the sort of endeavor undertaken by a deep-pocketed politician or chief executive, perhaps a Michael Bloomberg or a Warren Buffett. But the project, the Rocky Mountain Land Library, has instead two booksellers as its founders.
For more than 20 years, Jeff Lee, 60, and Ann Martin, 53, have worked at a Denver bookshop, the Tattered Cover, squirreling away their paychecks in the pursuit of a dream: a rural, live-in library where visitors will be able to connect with two increasingly endangered elements: the printed word and untamed nature.
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“It’s everything, really,” Martin said of the role the project has played in her life, and that of her husband, Lee. “It’s not really about us. It’s something for Colorado, for this region.”
They have poured an estimated $250,000 into their collection of 32,000 books, focusing the collection on Western land, history, industry, writers and peoples. There are tales by Norman Maclean; wildlife sketches by William D. Berry; and books on beekeeping, dragonflies, cowboys and the Navajo.
The couple said groupings of books would be placed around the ranch, organized by theme: mining, railroads, fur trade, Native American tribes, natural history, astronomy.
“The connection to nature; we know this place will give that to people,” Lee said. “Even if they don’t pick up a book.”
Martin grew up in Colorado. Lee is a transplant from Connecticut.
Both grew up making regular pilgrimages to the public library with their parents, adventures that inspired their love of books. Avid naturalists, the couple searched long and hard for the right setting for their beloved collection, and in 2013, they found it: Buffalo Peaks, an abandoned ranch about two hours from Denver, leased to them at a deep discount by the city of Aurora.
They have a grant from the South Park National Heritage Area and this summer will begin renovations, repairing two leaky roofs. Construction will be limited, however, as they have gathered less than $120,000 in outside funds. An estimated $5 million is needed to build out their dream. Water, electricity, furniture, staff members and an undetermined number of guests will come as money permits.
The Buffalo Peaks site is dotted by six sturdy buildings and nestled amid spectacular peaks. The couple envisions a visitor center in the main house, a library in the hayloft, watercolorists on the porch, Boy Scouts by the bristlecone pines, culinary students in the kitchen and policymakers in the yard, hashing out deals over water rights.
In the evenings, they said, visitors will share dinners in a mess hall, and tents will light up like lanterns, their inhabitants craned over stacks of borrowed books. Some visitors will sleep in small rooms outfitted with bunk beds in a building that was previously a bunkhouse for ranch hands.
“We’re just anxious for it to happen,” Lee said.
The Rocky Mountain Land Library dates to 1986, when Lee and Martin met at the Tattered Cover. They married in 1991.
Not long after, the store sent Lee to the London Book Fair. Martin went along, and they spent a few days at St. Deiniol’s, a castlelike residential library in the Welsh countryside founded in 1889 by a former prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. He was a lifelong book lover who centered his collection on Victorian history and theology.
St. Deiniol’s, which has since changed its name to Gladstone’s Library and expanded to 250,000 books, became the model for their project.
During their trip, the pair slept among the tomes, dined with academics and travelers and took a train along the north Wales coast. After, they marveled not only at the books but also at the community the library had inspired and the way it served as a base for exploring nature around it.
The couple returned to Colorado and resolved to create their own earthier, Western-style residential library, with rustic lodging, easy mountain access and a selection focused on the land, conservation and regional history.
They had already amassed an impressive personal library, but they began to collect with purpose. Lee attended literary fairs, searched for books in dusty warehouses and mined the collection of Stanley Lewis, a storied bookseller who peddled his wares in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The pair also gathered an extensive list of dedicated supporters, including Kat Vlahos, director of the Center of Preservation Research at the University of Colorado, Denver. She began assigning her architecture students to draw mock plans for the library.
“When I first met Jeff and he was telling me this, I was like, ‘That’s the coolest thing around,’ ” said Vlahos, who called the Rocky Mountain Land Library a potential oasis amid a flurry of regional change, including the loss of agricultural land and rapid population growth.
For Lee and Martin, the darkest hour came in 2012, when they were forced to move from their rental house after it changed ownership. For weeks they had no idea where they would put their books. Hearing of their plight, the head of a storage and distribution company offered free space. It took 1,026 boxes and three trucks to move the collection.
Lee also said he had occasionally faced questions about the project’s relevance in an increasingly Internet-based age.
“When Ann and I started this in the mid-90s, I never thought one of the potential problems could be the death of the book,” he said, adding that he ultimately concluded that the library would be more important in the digital era, not less. “As important as connecting people to nature and the land is now, it’s going to be even more so in the future.”