In 1939, a young woman fresh out of high school took her first job at a Manhattan temp agency and was promptly sent to do some clerical work at a small bookstore. Dorothy Klatt soon realized that this was no ordinary bookstore, and the owners, Phil and Fanny Duschnes, soon realized that Dorothy was no ordinary secretary. They offered her a job, and she accepted.
Philip C. Duschnes Rare Books & First Editions, with Dorothy as its only employee, built an international reputation over the next half-century until finally closing its doors. Because Dorothy was my mother, I more or less grew up in the book store, and eventually worked there part-time, filing correspondence and packing books for shipping. I thus earned the right to handle anything in the store -- a major privilege, considering that many of the books and manuscripts were rare and beautiful treasures, destined for serious bibliophiles and major libraries.
Thanks to my mom, and the kindness of Phil and Fanny Duschnes, my family had a unique and rarified experience with books. And that's what makes the riches of our own Pequot Library so extraordinary for me, and, as I will explain, so elusive.
Most of us know the Pequot Library as a standard lending and reference library, children's library, reading room, meeting place, lecture and concert venue, and exhibition space. And just about everyone knows about the Pequot Library Summer Book Sale, an annual fundraising event that draws thousands of people from all over the world (by the way, the 52nd annual book sale is July 27 to 31).
Some of us have discovered the Pequot's glorious Tiffany windows inconspicuously tucked away at the end of the stacks. But I'm guessing that only a few are aware of its special collections: 30,000 rare books and manuscripts that make up one of the most important collections in New England, if not the country. The focus is on New England and American history, but there are important holdings in genealogy, art and architecture, and great literature. The collection also includes private press books produced in very limited editions that elevate printing to the highest levels of art and craftsmanship.
The good news about the special collections is Fairfield's incredible good fortune in having it. The bad news, at least for now, is that the Pequot Library Special Collections isn't at the Pequot Library.
The founding of the Pequot Library was a shining example of the American philanthropic tradition. In 1889, the adopted daughter of businessman Frederick Marquand, Virginia Marquand Monroe, inherited his considerable fortune as well as the Marquand estate in Southport. The Monroes promptly formed the Pequot Library Association and commissioned noted architect Robert H. Robertson to design the striking stone library building that stands today on the site of the Marquand estate.
The Robertson-designed library opened its doors in 1894, just two years after the J.C. Cady-designed First Church was dedicated across town -- an architectural shoot-out in Fairfield.
A unique aspect of the library's mission was to develop itspecial collections, most of the acquisitions taking place in the first few decades of the 20th century. By mid-century, it became clear that this extremely valuable collection was at risk from inadequate storage and from theft. Two thousand items were selected to be moved to Yale's Bieneke Library in 1952, and in 2004, it became necessary to store the remainder of the special collection in a secure archival warehouse for safekeeping.
The items at the Bieneke Library are available if you're willing to go to New Haven (worth the trip; go on a sunny day -- you'll see why). The warehoused collection, while not off limits, would take time and expense to access. Some tantalizing examples are exhibited regularly at the library.
This is not to discount everything else the Pequot Library does. For all its history and imposing architectural trappings, there is no more welcoming place. The library staff and its volunteers are dedicated, helpful and cordial. There is a steady program of events for adults and children at the library, including concerts in its stunning auditorium that bring accomplished musicians to perform for us.
While the Pequot Library functions as a fully-integrated branch of the Fairfield Public Library, it is actually an independent not-for-profit facility governed by the same Pequot Library Association that has been in operation since 1894. About one-third of its $1 million annual budget comes from the town; the rest comes mainly from fundraising.
The Pequot Library, a treasure in and of itself, has nobly served the community for 108 years, but you'd get no argument from the staff that the absence of its extraordinary special collections is a major disappointment. Architectural plans have been drawn up for a state-of-the-art addition to house them in their rightful home and introduce these magnificent books to you; all that remains is to raise the money for it.
Surely there's a 21st-century philanthropist out there who'd want to see the special collection come home. While we wait for that special person, we can become members of the library and look for a treasure of your own at the book sale. Check out www.pequotlibrary.org, or even better, stop in for a visit.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.