My maternal grandparents lived about a mile up the beach from my childhood home in Point Clear. Their home was full of strange curios for a young boy to ponder. Corn grew on the wharf in planter boxes. The house chimney had a sinister iron cleanout door at the base that clanked in the wind and held the bones of dead birds and squirrels. The “dungeon, ” my brother called it. In the backyard were pear trees with fruit growing inside glass bottles. Next to them was an old wood boat planted with strawberries.
Most fascinating of all on the property was a 13-by-14 foot building near the highway. A sign above the door read POINT CLEAR LIBRARY. Inside were ancient books stacked 10 feet to the ceiling. In the center of the floor was a mahogany roll-top desk with a scattering of yellowed membership cards and an open, handwritten register like the ghostly librarian had only just walked out. On a bench, leaning against a window, was an article from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! declaring it the smallest public library in the world.
The library is still in the backyard of what is now my parents’ home. The white and green trim exterior looks as fresh as ever. The roll-top desk is gone from inside, but the original books fill the shelves. On a table in the center of the room are the blank library cards and the register containing many last names I recognize.
Along with the actual Ripley’s vignette are several framed articles about the library’s history. According to a 1941 piece in The Mobile Press-Register, the library was established in 1920, the outgrowth of a reading circle run by Mrs. Theodore Hurlbutt. The building was originally located on the south side of Zundel’s Lane, facing north. Mrs. Dora Zundel, whose home was nearby, was the first librarian. She worked on Saturdays from 2:30 to 5 p.m., but if a book was needed outside of those hours, all you had to do was knock on her door. Her house was also full of books, and if she couldn’t find something to match your taste, she’d walk over to the library with you and open it.
The library had approximately 2, 400 volumes on its shelves. As Point Clear was mostly a summertime community, there were only 20 annual members who paid $1 per year. Non-members paid 10 cents per book per week. Most of the books were donated, but the local ladies also held teas and luncheons to raise money for upkeep and a small salary for the librarian.
According to Mrs. Zundel, the most popular items were Westerns and love stories, with mysteries second and adventure third. She was proud that people from as far away as China had stopped by to borrow something to read during their vacation.
As television became popular in the 1950s, the library’s patronage dwindled until it was no longer feasible to keep it open. The building was eventually moved onto the grounds of the old Point Clear School, about a quarter of a mile east on Highway 32. There, it slowly fell into disrepair until 1970 when my father moved it one last time.
Dad is from Texas, but he summered in Point Clear as a boy.
“I remember walking down the boardwalk, holding my mother’s hand, going to check out a book, ” Dad tells me. “Nobody had television then. People came over on the ferry for the summer, and books were all you had.”
Dad’s Alabama summers were interrupted while he was away with the Navy. It wasn’t until he married my mother, a girl he’d known from Point Clear summers, that he returned. He found the old library with its door swinging open and the inside vandalized.
“There was just something nostalgic about it, ” Dad continued. “It represented a bygone era. A slower time. I wanted to save it if I could.”
Dad approached Mrs. Dorothy Pacey about purchasing the building. Her sister, Ms. Colleen Brodbeck, had been the last librarian. Mrs. Pacey told Dad he could have the library if he paid to move it. Additionally, he could keep what remained of the library’s money, $35 stored in a cigar box.
The Point Clear Library was subsequently moved to my grandparent’s home and onto my childhood stage. To this day, visitors stop by to remember the little building and look through the register for the signatures of family members. As with most old buildings, there are rumors that persist. Nobody’s ever claimed the library is haunted, but some believe a list of names for the unknown soldiers buried in Point Clear Cemetery is shoved somewhere between two books. Over the years, Mom has had calls from representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy asking if she’s located it. She says she hasn’t and doubts such a list exists.
I’d estimate nobody’s touched the books on those top two shelves in at least 50 years.
Text by Watt Key