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Unusual library may get new chapter

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- The 325 works in the Brautigan Library are diverse, to say the least, ranging from the short-story collection "Sterling Silver Cockroaches" to the economic treatise "Three Essays Advocating the Abolition of Money" to the poetry collection "A Shoebox to Hold the Unknown." But they all have one thing in common: They've never been published. From 1990 to 1996, the Brautigan Library accepted manuscripts from all over the world, as long as the authors paid binding costs.

Housed in the Fletcher Free Library in downtown Burlington, the collection exists as a memorial to the work of counterculture author and '60s icon Richard Brautigan, whose novel "The Abortion" takes place largely in a library that collects only unpublished works. Brautigan's novels have devoted fans, and so does the library he inspired.

"It still amazes me how many people I'll find here," says Fletcher codirector Amber Collins. "People are fascinated by the idea that books shouldn't be regulated by the fact that you have to have a publisher."

Visitors peruse the collection, look at the Brautigan memorabilia, or just savor the offbeat nature of the place. In accordance with the library's bylaws, none of the chairs match. Instead of using the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal systems, the Brautigan's trustees opted to organize the collection according to the "Mayonnaise System," in homage to Brautigan's novel "Trout Fishing in America," which ends with the word "mayonnaise." The Mayonnaise System is quite simple: Books are organized in categories such as "Love," "the Future," "Adventure," and "All the Rest."

New Englanders considering a visit to the collection should make one soon. If Brautigan founder Todd Lockwood's plans work out, the manuscripts and memorabilia will move to the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library sometime next year.

"The Presidio Branch is the ideal place for the Brautigan," Lockwood says. "It has the same address as the library in `The Abortion,' and the staff of the Presidio Branch love the idea."

The move is not definite: The proposal to move the Brautigan to the Presidio is still under consideration in San Francisco. But even if the move isn't approved, Lockwood said he will try to find another home for the Brautigan. The Fletcher needs the space occupied by the unpublished manuscripts for its English as a Second Language collection, Collins says.

If the Brautigan moves across the country, it will be yet another way in which the library echoes its fictional counterpart. The library in "The Abortion" moved from St. Louis to New York to San Francisco. The Brautigan's only move so far has been less dramatic: Before coming to the Fletcher in 1996, the library shared a building with a massage therapy institute on the same street. The library in "The Abortion" was supported by an anonymous millionaire. Before moving to the Fletcher, the Brautigan relied on small individual donations. Eventually, the Brautigan's donations didn't cover the rent and utilities, hence its relocation to the Fletcher. And like its fictional counterpart, the collection has had space issues. The library in "The Abortion" stored its excess books in immense caves in Northern California. The Brautigan found a less grandiose solution: Upon moving to the Fletcher, it stopped accepting manuscripts.

Some people were quite upset.

"For the first couple of years it was here, we had people begging us to allow their books up here," Collins says. "Some people sneaked in and put their books on the shelf," she added, pointing to a book with a different size and binding from all the others, titled "Strive for Mediocrity: A Memoir."

Aside from these unsolicited additions, the Brautigan's collection has not expanded. "At this point, it's kind of like installation art," Collins remarks.

The Brautigan's refusal to accept any more works isn't the only way its quirkiness has been mildly diminished. One of its famous decorative touches was jars of mayonnaise used as bookends.

Then the inevitable happened.

A 13-year-old took one of the jars and dropped it off the balcony overlooking the circulation desk. "We had this huge mayonnaise explosion on the first floor," Collins says, grimacing. "Thank God nobody got killed."

"And it was probably eight-year-old mayonnaise, so it didn't smell that great," Lockwood adds.

The mayonnaise jars were promptly retired.

But however much a few purists may be troubled by the loss of the mayonnaise jars and the refusal to accept submissions, the point of the Brautigan -- its collection of 325 manuscripts -- is still there, and it still draws visitors.

"I see someone in here at least once a week, reading or looking at Brautigan's pictures or his typewriter," Collins says.

The continuing flow of visitors delights Lockwood, who recalls the enthusiastic authors and Brautigan devotees who visited the library in its first couple of years. "At the old location somebody would walk in the door and say, `I'm here,' " Lockwood says. "Maybe some guy from Houston who flew here to drop off a book or just to visit."

One of Lockwood's favorite visitor stories involves a man who happened upon the collection by accident. A former business executive, he had quit his job to travel across the country visiting all the sites listed in "Trout Fishing in America." And in Burlington he found the Brautigan, Lockwood says, grinning.

Lockwood, a Burlington entrepreneur, has been a Brautigan fan since his undergraduate days. "In college, somebody gave me a book of his poetry," he recalls. "In 1975 I read `The Abortion,' and it became an annual tradition to pull it off the shelf and read it again. I'd come back to that same thought: When is somebody going to build this library? And then it changed to when am I going to do it."

Finally in 1990, Lockwood -- together with a board of trustees that included poet Robert Creeley and Richard Brautigan's daughter Ianthe -- founded the Brautigan Library. It was staffed by volunteers.

The Brautigan "is a labor of love in every sense of the word," Lockwood says. "Over 100 people in Burlington volunteered to keep the doors open" at its first location. That charitable spirit -- people donating time, money, and manuscripts -- is what makes the library an ideal monument to the counterculture author, Lockwood reflects.

"It's like the spirit you had at Woodstock," he adds. "People giving away food and fixing motorcycles for free. It's a little bit of '60s idealism."

The Brautigan isn't quite the enterprise it once was. It doesn't have its own facilities anymore, so there's no need for a volunteer staff. And although Lockwood extols the Brautigan as a library that provides writers "the sense of completion of having at least one of their works somewhere," it no longer does that for any new writers.

But if it's not as much of a library for writers anymore, it's still one for readers. Lockwood thinks the collection provides a valuable snapshot of late 20th-century culture. "There is a good deal of writing going on in America that has no commercial potential but very well might have historical value," he says. Among his favorite works in the collection is "Einstein Doesn't Play Dice," a novel about an MIT professor who becomes homeless. "It's a wonderful book about the human condition and how fragile our situations really are."

Lockwood also fondly recalls the first book the Brautigan received: "Letters to the Editor," a collection of letters to Burlington-area papers written by a progressive attorney "posing as a right-wing fanatic. The letters are so clever and totally in character," Lockwood says, adding that the collection includes both the initial letters and responses from readers.

For now, these works rest in a quiet corner of the Fletcher, awaiting discovery by new readers -- along with a few mismatched chairs, a picture of Richard Brautigan, and a glass display case containing his glasses, his typewriter, a few first editions of his books, and one last (and very old) jar of Hellmann's Mayonnaise. 

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