By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — I know a good calendar when I see one, much the same way I do an organization or institution in my city.
Around the holidays, I get my annual call from Suzanne Davis at the Friends Shop of the Haverhill Public Library. Like a robin heralding spring, she chirps her song: “The calendars are in. We’ll have one set aside for you.”
This ritual has been going on for 26 years, ever since the first calendar made its debut as a brainchild of library special collections curator Gregory Laing, who saw something intimate in history.
Greg was the best contact any newspaper reporter could have. Anything you wanted to know about the city’s past would be his pleasure. If he didn’t have the information on the tip of his tongue, he’d find it in a flash.
I can hear him now.
“Greg, when did the Massachusetts Editors & Publishers Association have that reunion on the shores of Kenoza Lake?”
“Give me a second. Why yes. That would be 1870 — right on your birthday.”
“What? Sept. 30? How did you know that?”
“You told me once. It stuck.”
Yes, Greg was Haverhill’s encyclopedia of knowledge and many of his pearly gems found their way to these library calendars over time. Credit the Friends with keeping the relay of time running. With 15,000 images to choose from in the Special Collections Room, I would say there is no end to this marathon.
It’s like having your own special collections library in the comfort of your home, had you collected the calendars all as keepsakes. I have. I glance at them from time to time and see the visages of our tremendous city.
What I wouldn’t give to go back a hundred years and stroll our downtown, admiring those halcyon days of yesteryear. Or tour the insides of our old high school or see Bradford College in its heyday. Haverhill was introduced to me through marriage, so I didn’t know and appreciate its fine points as I was growing up. Still, it has always held its charm and antiquity for me. Sad to say, I find a lot of that personality missing now.
This year’s calendar brings much of it back, as you turn the pages of time with a cover shot of Chase’s Wharf when steam-powered vessels navigated the Merrimack River. Having attended school in the 1940s in Somerville, I do recall the ice wagons making their deliveries to homes and businesses. Every community had them. The size of your card in the window would show how large a cake of ice you wanted.
Also shown are images of the old Groveland Street School, Walnut Square Park and Monument Square in the 1890s; a view of upper Washington Street in 1865; Tilton’s Tower and the Pilling Block in 1882 after it had been restored following the great fire.
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the Haverhill Public Library, unwavering in its service to the community. Despite some troubled economic times, it has remained strong.
Combing its various collections is like going on a scavenger hunt. You never know what you’ll find, whether books, music or videos, a computer class or children’s puppet show. Here’s my drift. Much of these services are provided by the Friends and their benevolent ways. The Friends Shop may very well be the best kept secret in town, with bargains galore and a virtual treasure trove of merchandise.
The gift shop and calendars are but two pine cones on the tree. Since 1956, the Friends have also staffed book sales and provided cultural programs. They’ve been a ray of sunshine after the storm. Any funds collected go toward the purchase of new books, computers, printers, software, museum passes and furnishings. They support an adult learning center, the George Washington statue renovation and landscaping around the building.
On a personal note, both my boys became Eagle Scouts after performing their community service projects at the library under Greg Laing’s tutelage. One son documented the 10 oldest homes in the city. Another upgraded information about the city’s infrastructure.
As for myself, a visit each week to the library brightens my day. People like Sara Jaffarian donated the reading room where you first walk in. Others have also stepped up with their kindness and generosity.
I only wish the city had the funding to keep this place more humanized as opposed to mechanical. A staffing shortage has led to greater automation at the checkout counter. I would rather encounter a courteous smile than a brazen machine that putters its response to me.
It scares me to think that there are so many books in a public library and not enough people to dust them. Any support they can get, physical or monetary, will help preserve one of this city’s most important landmarks.
Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.