During the summer season, the Smith Memorial Library is easily overshadowed. The respectable, brick building anchors its end of Bestor Plaza, but most people are drawn to its larger neighbor, the Amphitheater.
During the off-season, however, the library is the heart of the community of hardy Chautauquans who stay on the grounds all year.
“With a smaller population, you’ll find people spreading out on tables doing puzzles, doing more of their office work here, and we’re happy to be that resource,” said Scott Ekstrom, director of the Smith.
Rules relax during the winter, and dogs can join their owners among the stacks. The library even adds music to its contributions off-season.
“We play classical music during the library hours,” Ekstrom said. “Can you imagine? And we have a piano — a beautiful Steinway grand piano — that’s here in the off-season and is available for people to play.”
There is always coffee and tea, and the library staff will sometimes provide popcorn.
Besides these less-formal offerings, the library still has some specific programs, including an annual Christmas lunch in December and a weekly game night on Mondays.
“We start at 3 o’clock and are usually playing right up to 6, 6:30 p.m. or so — sometimes later,” said Hugh Butler, a year-round resident and organizer of the game nights. “We’ve tried different things. ‘Monopoly’ — you really have to hurry to get that done. Poker — different kinds of poker. We were doing an experiment with that this last winter … we would keep a running track of who got how many points from the dominoes game, and then we would convert that into Monopoly money to play poker with.”
There is also a weekly bridge group and a knitter group that uses the library’s spaces during the off-season. In the spring, Ekstrom hopes to pair up with the National Endowment for the Arts again for the Big Read program.
Despite its central role, the number of people using the library dips considerably in the winter — from hundreds every day to perhaps a hundred on a good day.
The respite gives Ekstrom and his staff a chance to recover and to prepare for next season.
“I will continue to be thinking about the physical plant and some fun ways to possibly make some minor reconfigurations of the furniture,” Ekstrom said. “Of course, it takes all year in the off-season to get ready for the next season. So, already, we are gathering together speaker books for 2016.”
And for the few Chautauquans who remain through the dead of winter, the library becomes a place to check in with one another during the worst of Western New York weather.
“People would ask us why in the world would we walk on the ice and through the snow, sometimes in a blizzard, to get to the library?” Butler said. “The answer is that we kind of watch out for each other, and we want to prove to each other that we can do it. So it’s an achievement to be proud of, that you weathered the storm. There’s a few hundred of us that have the grit to get through it.”