library windows.jpg

Anne Cleveland, director of the Charleston Library Society, lifts the blinds to show the rust and decay on one of the many windows that will be replaced this summer as the society closes so its King Street home can be repaired Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The two-story tall metal windows inside the Charleston Library Society's main reading room need to be replaced, and Doerte McManus thought the old ones could be fashioned into coffee tables or other keepsakes to raise money.

But as the first window was being removed, it quickly crumbled into thousands of fragments.

"You know that scene in 'Indiana Jones' when the face disintegrates? That's literally what happened," said McManus, the society's development director. "It was just amazing."

That old metal window — ruined because Plexiglas added for insulation 40 years ago accelerated condensation and rust — proved useless as a souvenir, but it could serve as a perfect metaphor for the benign neglect that had taken hold inside the South's oldest surviving cultural institution.

Founded in 1748, decades before the United States, the Library Society has endured wars, fires, earthquakes, storms and less catastrophic challenges, such as the creation of robust public library system and the digital age.

Even before that first window was taken out, Director Anne Cleveland and the society's board had seen how compromised their building had become. Hurricane Matthew underscored that in 2016 when its driving wind and rain caused a major leak.

The society subsequently launched its first major renovation of its home — and its first fundraising campaign, both of which are expected to conclude this year.

But first, the institution will shut its doors for about three months, from the second week of June until after Labor Day. Organizers hope when they reopen, the society will be poised to thrive for centuries to come.

main library floor and stacks.jpg

Plaster peels from the walls revealing water intrusion in the walls at the Charleston Library Society Tuesday, April 30, 2019 on King Street. The building constructed in 1912 will be closed for renovations this summer. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Avoiding 'gross ignorance'

The Library Society has evolved in all sorts of ways since 19 Charleston men decided to organize, chip in together and order books, pamphlets and scientific equipment they agreed to share.

A 1762 advertisement for the society praised books' potential to promote welfare and happiness, albeit in language that would draw cringes today:

"The gross ignorance of the naked Indian must raise our pity," it reads, "(so) it is our duty as men, our interest as members of a community, to take every step, pursue every method in our power, to prevent our descendants from sinking into a similar situation.”

The organization quickly saw its membership balloon to more than 100 by 1750, including many men of standing. All four South Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence were board members.

Its collection was first kept in members' homes, then moved to the second floor of a liquor warehouse that burned in 1790. It would survive the Civil War largely intact and move a few more times until 1914, when the society built its first building specifically designed to house its collection.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Andrew Carnegie was spreading his vast wealth across the nation to build more than 2,500 libraries, including 14 in South Carolina. He chipped in $5,000 — more than $125,000 today — to help pay down the society's debt incurred on the land and new building, which together cost $83,500 (more than $2.1 million today).

That building at 164 King St. has seen some expansion since then as the society acquired nearby properties, but it has never seen a major renovation. It has never had to close its doors for an extended time for repairs. And it never has had to launch a capital campaign to pay for it all.

Hurricane Matthew's damage was a major omen, but a later engineer's report would deliver even worse news.

"The entire building was at risk," Cleveland said. "That's not what I was prepared for."

Fixing to fix things

The society already has replaced its roof, but it soon began to map out other necessary work not only to address the building's problems but to improve its access to the public and to ensure the safekeeping and display of its tens of thousands of old books and other items.

The work includes:

  • Updating the main reading room with improved lighting, including the skylight, new windows and plaster and paint on the walls and scrubbing the marble floors.
  • Adding a new wheelchair accessible restroom to the Mouzon map room just off the main reading room.
  • Creating a small museum space at the 160 King St. building for 16th century portraits and books donated to the society.
  • Improving the main building's rear entry to make its elevator more accessible to visitors in wheelchairs and redoing the ground floor to make it more suitable for hosting smaller events.
  • Adding better display cases — replacing ones mostly jettisoned by other local museums — as well as improved technology for showing presentations and films.
Charleston library society.jpg

Member and author Michele Moore works at the Charleston Library Society Tuesday, April 30, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Cleveland also has tended to small details, such as replacing the balky fluorescent tubes in the stacks. "You could no more read the titles of books on the bottom shelf than you could fly to the moon," she said.

On the ground floor, she converted a break and storage room into a children's reading room.

Just above, the walls of the society's main room remain pockmarked with moisture stains and missing plaster. While the roof has been fixed, the walls needed many more months to dry out so they could be replastered and repainted.

Doerte McManus, development director at the Charleston Library Society Tuesday, April 30, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The damage has given the room a scarred appearance, but McManus said this has had an upside: "It's good for dialing for dollars."

It has been good. The society already has pledges to cover 86 percent of the estimated $5 million total repair. A recent gift will match dollar for dollar any new giving, up to a total of $250,000. If reached, that will get the society within $200,000 of its goal.

"We hope to close the campaign successfully later this year," McManus said. "We think it's doable."

While the Library Society has never closed its doors for such an extensive time, taking the summer off will give contractors the access and freedom to wrap up the job more quickly. "I want it over," Cleveland said. "I want it done."

A society with more hats

The ambitious restoration work wouldn't matter much if the society were losing relevance in the digital age.

As McManus said, "You don't secure a building for its own sake."

But as the society nears its 300th anniversary in existence, it has expanded from its roots as a lending library — the nation's second-oldest continually operating one — and into a sort of hybrid between a lending library, museum and intellectual salon, hosting screenings, book events and talks.

It held 220 programs last year.

"We're a busy place," Cleveland said. "The society has been called by some members Charleston's cultural, social and intellectual living room."

It also has realized that its collection is increasingly historic and deserves to be curated and celebrated as such. Only about 50,000 of the society's 80,000 items may be checked out; the others are too delicate or rare.

"We have the most robust collection of colonial newspapers in the country dating back to 1732," Cleveland said. "A lot of the things we've acquired over 270 years have become very valuable."

These things include John Paul Jones' plan for the first Navy from the 1780s. Much of the page is just covered with doodles. "They're just amazing doodles," Cleveland said. "On the other side of the page, there's a note that the doodles were made by Alexander Hamilton, 'who was supposed to be taking minutes.' The history comes alive in a way it wouldn't if you just read it in a book."

'Books matter again'

For decades, the Charleston Library Society was one of old Charleston's well-kept secrets, a somewhat hidden and largely quiet institution.

"I've lived here in Charleston since 1983, and I taught history and English lit a block away from here," Cleveland said, "and I never stepped foot in this building until I was offered the job."

Anne Clevelans.jpg

Anne Cleveland, director of the Charleston Library Society Tuesday, April 30, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

That was back in 2009 when the society had 450 members. One of Cleveland's first priorities was to grow that number, and she did. Today, the society has about 4,100 members. It recently raised its annual membership fee from $100 to $150.

A few years ago, it put up a sign along King Street inviting more people inside. "Every journey starts with a single step," it reads. "Let yours be up the marble staircase into the Charleston Library Society."

Charleston Library Society

The Charleston Library Society had been a rather quiet, insular institution, but director Anne Cleveland has succeeded in her goal of dramatically increasing its membership. It put up this welcome sign outside its front steps a few years ago. Robert Behre/Staff

Circulation is actually up 35 percent during the past three years, which Cleveland credits to the growing membership as well as the society's skilled librarians who pick desired new titles. 

"The Kindle and E-books have plateaued, and there seems to be a real desire for authenticity," Cleveland said. "Books seem to matter again."

Upstairs stacks and celing.jpg

Sandy Williams finds a book for a member at the Charleston Library Society Tuesday, April 30, 2019 in Charleston. Plaster peels from the walls and ceiling revealing water damage that will be fixed as the library closes for the summer. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

While there are currently fewer than 20 membership libraries still in existence that lend books and host events, they may be mattering more again, too.

Cleveland notes that Charleston and Seattle areas have more in common than Boeing. Shortly after the airliner chose Charleston for its new Dreamliner manufacturing plant, bibliophiles there created Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum, on the ground floor of a historic YMCA in 2014. Last year, it moved and reopened in the Economy Building at Pike Place Market.

"Independent libraries in America have long provided access to private book collections and rooms for discussion and writing on important issues," Folio's website notes. "The seminal idea came from Ben Franklin in 1731 and rapidly spread to hundreds of cities worldwide, welcoming citizens from all walks of life."

Last chapter 

The Library Society isn't the only one refurbishing space on this block of King Street.

Earlier this year, the owner of an antique business at 160 King St. retired and closed up shop. The society, which leases the storefront, struck a deal with Buxton Books to relocate its small store there from Concord and Cumberland.

Buxton Books

The Charleston Library Society recently leased its commercial space at 160 King St. to Buxton Books. The store and society expect synergy that will benefit both, particularly after the society's renovations finish later this year. Robert Behre/Staff 

Both the bookstore and society hope the lease will create some synergy that will help both thrive and help make Charleston a more popular stopping point for authors on a national book tour.

"We realize there was a real shared mission of getting Charleston on the literary circuit," said Polly Buxton, who owns the store with her husband Julian. "It's been the exception rather than the rule that certain big name authors come here while touring."

For instance, a May 3 event this month featuring New York Times bestselling author Delia Owens sold out all 250 seats. Buxton noted this was Owens' third tour but first stop in the Lowcountry.

Putting a stop in Charleston more in the heads of New York publishers promises to benefit both the society and the store, particularly once things get back to normal this fall.

"People want to come to Charleston. Authors want to come to Charleston," Buxton said. "We're finding a way to make this a no-brainer."

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.


Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.