“Library Lady! Do you have ‘Crawdads Sing’?”
Gail Russell smiled at the inquiry from a woman in a wheelchair, as a group headed to the Butterfield Trail Village dining room, while jazzy music played from the hallway speakers.
Minutes earlier, another resident had visited the BTV library that Gail manages and checked out the sole copy of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the Delia Owens novel that, by mid-July, had spent 168 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Gail can hardly walk through the hallways without someone striking up a book-related conversation. She’s been on the BTV library committee since moving here in 2017, and took over as head a few years ago when Genie Donovan retired. And, at 6-foot tall, she’s hard to miss.
As a shy only child, Gail found refuge and countless adventures in books. Early favorites were “Andy and the Lion,” “Parasols is for Ladies,” and Dr. Seuss’ “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” Then she worked her way through “Black Beauty” and several other animal-themed books and eventually read all the Nancy Drew mysteries she could find.
With her earlier bedtime, she kept a book under her bed to sneak in more reading. She left the hall light on and opened her door a crack – which worked until someone switched off the light.
After careers as a stay-at-home mom and at a public library, Gail now manages the collection at the BTV library. She enjoys reading a bit of everything, but her favorite genre – as it is with most residents – is mystery. James Patterson, Greg Iles, Robert Parker and Janet Evanovich are among the top authors checked out.
FROM THE EAST COAST TO ARKANSAS BY WAY OF CHICAGO
Gail’s parents divorced when she was just 3, so she and her mom moved to Chicago to live with her mom’s best friend from their college days at the University of Missouri. The woman became an aunt to Gail.
She spent childhood summers with her dad in New Brunswick, Canada, where he’d grown up, and her aunts, uncles and grandparents. In high school, she was taller than most students, even the guys, and she didn’t like that she stood out. People often have mistakenly assumed she played basketball. “I don’t care now; I love it!”
Right before graduating from Wheaton High School, Gail got a job as a long-distance operator for Illinois Bell. But her mom soon moved them to Clarksville, Arkansas. A writer, her mom had written about raising poultry for years and wanted to try it herself. They bought a farm and built chicken houses – but before long, her mom realized she was allergic to feed dust and chicken feathers.
So, Gail’s mom and aunt bought a local newspaper, the Johnson County Graphic, and ran it for several years. Her mom had majored in journalism and had met Gail’s dad when working at a paper in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Gail enrolled in the local college but changed course after a man from Draughon School of Business in Little Rock stopped by their farm asking for directions. Gail attended there for two years.
Then, at 19, she married her boyfriend, and they had three daughters close together in age. Because her own mother had always worked, Gail wanted to stay home with the girls.
When the poultry company her husband, John, worked for went under, he was offered a job at George’s in Springdale. The family moved to Springdale in 1962.
THE LIBRARIAN EMERGES
When their three daughters were around high school age, Gail sought work again and went to a Census Bureau job fair. She got hired and was supposed to go to Dallas for training when she came down with the flu. The flu ended up being her pregnancy with her fourth daughter, born 14 years after her third. She kept the job though, and stayed with it for about six and a half years.
Then, one of Gail’s best friends told her they needed someone to shelve books at the Springdale Public Library. She considers it one of the most important roles in a library.
“If the books aren’t put in the right spot, they might as well be lost forever. It makes it hard for anybody to find them,” she said.
Over 26 years at the library, Gail became a clerk, oversaw the clerks, took some reference classes, worked in the children’s section, and ended up at the information desk and as a readers’ advisor. That was the best role, helping people find what they were looking for.
The library, located in Murphy Park, expanded twice during her tenure. They added more materials, including audio books and DVDs; a section for young adults with related programming; and computers with public internet access.
Gail and her family lived on a George’s company farm in Springdale from 1963 to 1987. They grew a big garden and did some canning, and she raised about 100 houseplants. Gail and some neighbors started the local 4-H Club. That led to her volunteering with the Washington County Fair for more than 20 years, working in the junior arts and women’s departments. At her church in Springdale, she volunteered in the nursery and started a mothers’ day out program. She recently changed her membership to Central United Methodist in Fayetteville.
Gail always wanted to be a mother. Her daughters – Susan, Connie, Karen and Heather – have now given her 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. “My greatest achievement is raising four super good kids. My girls are all so different, but each special in their own way. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
When her daughters were young, she got interested in genealogy. Her dad’s mother in Canada was Scottish, which fascinated her. She found one German ancestor, a Prussian soldier in the Revolutionary War. She has copies of the letters her fifth-great-grandfather exchanged with George Washington.
“That’s what I like about genealogy – it’s just a total mystery,” she said.
Gail has completed five family history books, with photos, records and documents collected and organized into bound volumes. She did one book on her ex-husband’s family and gave copies to her daughters. She did another on her father’s side of the family. Her daughters say the next one needs to be about her.
When Gail started looking into family histories, she had to visit libraries, courthouses and cemeteries to find records. The internet makes those searches much easier. Though Gail plays cards four days a week, she’s taking a break from Mahjong so she can spend more time on her genealogy and scrapbooking projects.
A BUTTERFIELD LEGACY
Many years ago, Gail’s mom and aunt moved to BTV. The on-site health care center was an important factor. Their positive experiences influenced Gail when she considered moving here five years ago.
She now keeps dozens of plants inside her studio apartment and on the balcony. Inside, she has several young African violets and an Angel Wing Begonia she’s tended for about 50 years.
She had pets her entire life before moving to BTV. Two shadow boxes on the wall celebrate her last dog and cat. She does some cooking in her small kitchen, often using a Crock-Pot because it makes less of a mess. More often, she meets different groups of friends for dinner in the dining room on certain nights.
She watches “General Hospital” every day, attends wellness and music programs, goes to Bible study, and has been a reader in several plays written by a BTV resident. She also serves on the health care committee.
“I’ve got so many new friends now. It’s wonderful,” she said.
And so many of them know her from the BTV library. Carl Koffler, who’d served on the Springdale library board when she worked there, got her on the library committee as soon as she arrived.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
If Gail were a character in a novel, you’d find her among the pages of a cozy mystery before you ever found her in a dark thriller. She is soft-spoken with a gentle, easygoing nature and innate curiosity.
In the library’s main room, she shows off the fiction collection, which includes classics, mysteries and some paperbacks. James Patterson books fill four rows, and a second shelf of westerns recently was added. The nonfiction collection includes religion, health, gardening, music, humor, biographies, sports, poetry, history – and even an Arkansas-focused section.
The library committee meets monthly, and each member maintains a section of the shelves. Duplicate copies of books and titles not checked out for a long time go on the giveaway cart.
The expanded large print collection had to be moved to the room next door, which also holds audio books and DVDs – all popular with residents whose eyesight is limited.
The library is always open. They use the old-fashioned pocket card system, and there are no due dates for checked out items.
“Some people hardly get home with the book before they’re ready to bring it back. And some people take a long time to read,” Gail said. “It doesn’t matter; we’ve got enough books – trust me.”
Since the pandemic, she’s been the only one staffing the library. That’s helped her learn the collection and better understand what people want to read, which guides her when acquiring more books.
The library was an important resource to BTV residents in the height of the pandemic when they couldn’t play card games or do so many other group activities.
“I can’t imagine not having a book to read – or three or four at a time,” Gail said.