LIVE: Richard Russo @ the Gloversville Public Library, 10/23/14

The Richard Russo book display in Gloversville Library

Story and photographs by Stanley Johnson

In a recent Nippertown story by local performer Erin Harkes, she wrote about Richard Thompson and how he was one artist for whom she would hold open the date of his show so she could be sure to go.

I’m the same when it comes to certain writers, as in book authors. When I heard that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Russo was returning to Gloversville, I had to be there.

Russo, the author of about 10 books, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for “Empire Falls.” Several of his books, including “Mohawk,” “The Risk Pool” and “Nobody’s Fool” (which was made into a 1994 film starring Paul Newman), were fictional but accurate depictions of his youth in Gloversville, a small mill town on the northwestern fringe of Nippertown. (Okay, maybe it’s beyond the fringe.)

Aside from being a big fan, the reason I had to be there was because that’s also where I was born, raised and fled from after high school. Russo, after a long absence, returned to help the Gloversville Public Library with a campaign to bring the 110-year-old Carnegie building into the 21st century.

The library was one of 107 libraries built in the early part of the last century by Andrew Carnegie. The restoration drive has so far resulted in about $2 million of the projected $7 million needed to update the boiler, add air conditioning and construct an elevator for handicapped access beyond the first floor. New windows have already been added.

Russo spoke about how the library was crucial to setting him on the path to being a writer. He said he was delighted to find that security was lax when, as a twelve-year-old, he made break from the kid’s room to the adult room. “The stacks of books seemed so high that I could get lost there,” he said, drawing comparisons to the narrow streets hemmed in by high walls in Venice as in his book “Bridge Of Sighs.”

Russo said he could investigate books that he probably couldn’t bring home by writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, which sported lurid covers and were filled with action. “It was fun,” he said, noting that he hoped young people can still discover the fun in libraries.

I don’t remember ever meeting Russo when I was a youth there (he was a few years older) but many of our experiences overlapped. I was turned on to great reading material such as books by Ray Bradbury by the children’s room librarian Esther Tasner. Once out in the regular stacks, I discovered the record section. From this library I found out about Big Bill Broonzy, Johnny Winter and others, who I would nvere have found in the Melody House or Britts Department store record section.

It was also in this library that I had my first experiences with a photostatic copy machine (way better than ditto or mimeograph machines), and this started me on a path to creating my own crude comic books, newspapers and, eventually, underground newspapers.

Later in life, the big reading room with its enormous tables provided me with a place to write term papers while at break from college. Although I haven’t been back to the Gloversville Library in recent years, I continue to use other branches of the Mohawk Valley Library Association in Schenectady and Amsterdam for entertainment. The Schenectady Libary, for example, has a DVD section bigger than any of the closed video stores that used to be everywhere. And no where else can I find audio books at this price, which is, um, free.

Best of all, especially to not-rich people like me, I can get on the internet without having to buy a computer, smart phone or the data plan to service these devices. It may not level the playing field between the have-nots and the have-lots, but what other choice is there?

It was great to find out that Russo is planning a sequel to “Nobody’s Fool” with a book tentatively titled “Everybody’s Fool.” It was also great to meet him, something that rarely happens with my favorite writers unless I’m willing to stand in a long line in a big city. (Stephen King or Dan Simmons in Albany? I doubt it.)

I hope that the Gloversville Public Library achieves its goal. Almost nothing else of my youth remains in Gloversville: my home, my grade school and my church are all just memories. My parents are dead and our graduating class from Gloversville High couldn’t even get enough interest up for a 40th reunion.

But some have managed to keep the Glove Theater alive. Perhaps the same can happen for the library…

Richard Russo
Richard Russo
The Gloversville Public Library
The Gloversville Public Library
The Gloversville Library staircase
The Gloversville Library staircase
Richard Russo and Gloversville Library Director Barbara Madonna
Richard Russo and Gloversville Library Director Barbara Madonna
  1. Richard Brody says

    Stanley – fine story and pix, particularly the library staircase. I, too, am a longtime Russo fan and as one who has spent the better part of fifty years in colleges and universities, I want to recommend “Straight Man”, Russo’s dark comedic farewell to his university teaching career.

  2. Stan Johnson says

    I just finished “Elsewhere”, a non-fiction memoir about Gloversville, his mother and the web that bound them to this small city. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of leather mills, the diseases of dementia and OCD, and the outlook for small, dying cities and towns in greater North America. I wish he were wrong about that, but I’m afraid he’s accurate about that too.

  3. Maurice says

    Wish I had known about this before. Huge fan of Russo’s; also recommend “Straight Man”. A truly great read.
    Several years ago I took one of those free on-line classes/book clubs (through Barnes and Noble, I believe) with Russo as the instructor. We were reading “Empire Falls” – he was an engaging, informative and interested leader. I had taken other classes before with authors who barely were involved and rarely engaged in the discussions. Russo was thankfully very different and made that class such a joyous experience.

    Thanks for the great story.

  4. Thomas johnson says

    Thank you Stan for the trip down memory lane.
    The Gloversville Library is a place of conflicting memories for me. I went there to finish my homework one day after a trip to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. It was still bleeding unfortunately, so I ended up turning in a blood dripped page of homework the next day. It was also the place where the angry gorilla I was locked in there with one night as I slept, kept chasing me up and down that stairwell! Ah, the memories of childhood…

    What I’d like to know Stan, is did Richard Russo tell you what street he lived on in Gloversville? I have a feeling it was Wells st, just above Fulton, on the Me n Ma’s side. There was an older kid there, about 3 years older than you, and I have a memory of repeatedly calling out his name as I was on the Guffries’ side.
    For some reason, I think I was calling out, “Russsooo, Russsooo!” I guess I knew then he was gonna be special, if it even was him. I believe I knew him from the library, and I guess that was my way of letting him know I thought he was smart, if it even was him…?

  5. capgirl says

    What a gorgeous building. Would be worth a ride out there to visit.

    Richard Russo is a favorite author – I saw him at the NYS Writers Institute a few years ago – he read from ‘That Old Cape Magic’, and talked quite a bit about ‘Bridge of Sighs’, a book that changed my life. I still wonder – when a character in a novel has a great epiphany, did the author as well? I certainly did!

  6. Barb Madonna says

    Richard Russo grew up on Helwig St, parallel to Kingsboro and N. Main Street, near 6th Avenue.

  7. Thomas johnson says

    Thank you for the Helwig st. references. That was near my grandmother’s house, as well as my God-parents. Someday I hope to be able to ask him if he remembers a little kid who kept trying to annoy him, but actually he seemed to be amused by.
    I have gone through some powerful growth and learning recently, mostly by trying to piece together and remember growing up in Gloversville. I can honestly say that “dwelling” on the past might be more beneficial to figuring out why one is the way one is, more than scholars and teachers generally advise. Often we are told to let go and move on, but I am glad I didnt listen. Things make a lot more sense now that I am dealing with all that Gloversville was able to put on me.
    I really believe it is a unique place, that somehow stands apart from all the other towns nearby. Johnstown, Mayfield, and Broadalbin somehow seem to have escaped the “magnetic black-hole of the universe”, that Gloversville seemed compelled to be.
    That isnt to say there wasnt magic there, but somehow God seemed to use it as a testing ground, or a place to bring people together for all the right or wrong reasons.
    Johnstown some how did not seem to be straddled by the repellent magnetic field that G’ville was, even though it was almost its twin brother. Even the high school seemed to have a different vibe than GHS.

    I think G’ville is a fantastic place, with many, many mysterious goings on, especially for the sensitive types like artistits, musicians and writers. Many brilliant people grew up there, even if they never truely became aware of it. And many of them have been left to wonder all their lives, why they never became as successful as they always sensed they should have been.
    So thank God for Richard Russo, and his ability to spark something within people, to help them discover their unique greatness. And thank God for all the people who did find their own little niche and were content with it.
    Because I have dwelled so much on my past there, even though I can never have it do do over again, I realize that many of the lessons and experiences have come full circle. So the power of my experience there is helping me reinvent myself, and I am very grateful to be aware of that.
    From what I gather, that is a realization that Richard Russo also came to.
    So I will put this out there for the universe of Gloversville to hear; I am working now on my own first book, and hopefully people will be responding to it someday as we are now.
    In no way do I underestimate the power of its message. In fact, my whole life has led up to me doing this. Yet I was never able to see that until now. And hopefully I will be working similar to Richard in trying to slove the mystery that is Gloversville, or at least the mystery that lives within all of Gloversville’s wandering children.
    Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone have nothing on us!

Comments are closed.