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Library Story: Libraries & Dumpsters

Jim Nyland
Jim Nyland is a teacher, counselor, tech coordinator, high school assistant principle and a JRVLS board member.

Story by Jim Nyland

It started with a dumpster.  Well, actually, it started in a dumpster, but more on that in a minute.

My start in the world of literature was not an encouraging one.  I grew up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. I don’t recall a single book ever entering our home, with the exception of the children’s books smuggled in by Dot, a wonderful Southern woman who, with her boyfriend, rented a room upstairs at our home.  Dot secured cheaper rent by agreeing to babysit us while my parents worked and she loved to read to us aloud before tucking us in to bed.  To this day, I cannot think of Pinocchio without “hearing” it recited in my head in a gentle Georgia drawl.

While I enjoyed the library at Northrup Elementary School, there was nothing in my upbringing or back ground that would lead one to believe I would grow up to be anything other than apathetic to reading. Which brings us back to the dumpster.

I grew up terribly bored and often explored on my Schwinn banana seat bike, frantically searching for something to break the monotony.   I was a regular male child with lots of time on my hands and a limited sense of appropriate behavior or hygiene, I was attracted to the only thing that seemed even half interesting – garbage, and not just any garbage, business garbage.  The stuff stores threw out.

My future life as a flea market and yard sale picker was forged digging through the trash at all of the downtown businesses.  My room was filled with half reams of unused carbon paper, miscellaneous office supplies, and bizarre combinations of shelving, all acquired through dumpster diving.  If you came across me, feet waving in the air, half submerged, you knew I had found something really good.  Each trip I would expand my range, a dumpster at a time, until I was hitting nearly all of them.  And then, one day, I opened the lid for the first time on the dumpster behind Ekren Drug.  And my life changed.

I still have dreams about it as a grown man.  The lid slams noisily back, and there, covering the bottom of the dumpster, are boxes and boxes of books and magazines.   Ekren Drug was the closest thing to a book store in my hometown.  It had an entire wall tucked in the back covered with book shelves and every month, the proprietor would, basically, weed, pulling books and magazines that had not sold, ripping off the covers, tossing neatly packed boxes of them into their dumpster.

All free.  All for me.

The sight of them made my heart jump. I took as many as I could carry home.

I began to read.

It was a mixed bag of car and hunting magazines, dime store detective novels, racy romances, and pulp sci-fi, and I gobbled it all up.  I was intellectually ravenous. Then month after month I went back for more, and I continued to go back until, for reasons I never understood, the books simply stopped appearing.  My stash had run dry.  So I was left with a dilemma – finding this supply of books opened up my mind and made my love of reading blossom, but now my source of reading material was gone.  What to do? Which brings me to the Pennington County Library.

I had always been well aware of the Pennington County Library.  Up until that point, I just never had had a reason to go there.  It was just a large, one story building with a decidedly 70’s look to it that I passed as I perused nearby dumpsters.   So one day, sometime after my book supply had run out and while I was feeling particularly mentally starved, I went in, and was instantly overwhelmed.  Stacks and stacks of books.  Thousands of them.  It was almost intimidating.  Just the smell made my head swirl just a bit.

I was in awe.  Over the rest of my life in Thief River Falls, the Pennington County Library was practically my second home.  I would stay there until closing, reading, and often simply walking the aisles, taking it all in.  I went on to become a librarian largely because of that place and although my path was a little unorthodox, it did teach me something about literature and the discovery of the love of reading.  How you were raised and what you read early on is nowhere near as important as getting literature into people’s hands and letting them find their love for reading.  I try very hard to follow that today as an elementary librarian, and I continue to believe the lifetime love of reading can start anywhere.

Even in a dumpster.

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