We spent a wonderful Saturday out in St. Martins, a small coast side community an hour's drive from Saint John. They were holding their third annual Showcase St. Martins, a chamber of commerce type event to promote and draw people into the village. We had been invited to bring the Storytent in support of their Book Town initiative.
Event tents are frequently high-effort, low-reward affairs. They are useful for promotion and networking - as a step in the building of something - but they do only a limited amount of good. We were on hand for four hours, during which time we met 6 families and read to, or provided a reading opportunity for, 9 kids. We were just slightly less popular than the brand new fire engine placed proudly on display out front As event tents go, that was pretty typical.
But I was glad we went because we met some people with literacy concerns who were feeling pretty isolated. Our contact began about a month ago when volunteers at their small community library were looking for a home for an overflow of books.
"How come, when I called Fredericton," our host Jackie Bartlett asked, "they didn't tell me about you?"
"Who did you talk to?" we asked.
She said she called Literacy New Brunswick. "Do you mean the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick?" we asked. "Yes," she said. But, she may have had it right the first time, and ended up talking to somebody with the province. In either case, no, they probably wouldn't think of us even as a regional resource (though we've supported people from one end of the province to another - the "NB" in our name isn't mere vanity).
"So," we asked, "how did you get a hold of us?"
She said she called the East Branch of the Saint John Regional Library, and they put her on to us. From there, somehow, they got the idea of bringing out the storytent. (I fear they may have mistaken us for the kind of popular children's entertainers who can draw a crowd.)
"We have a literacy problem," Jackie said, and talked a little about what the village was doing to encourage reading. Originally - and some of this I'm taking from the web - their Book Town initiative focused on adding books to the village's commercial establishments. For example, Jackie created a shop focusing on mystery novels above her tea room. A same-minded campground owner began stocking camping and adventure books. A local artist hosted books on arts and crafts. In 2007, the village convinced the New Brunswick Legislature to proclaim St. Martins "New Brunswick's official Book town." By now, there are about a dozen booksellers in the village. But our host told us their dream is to be more than booksellers. They would like to see free books available "in every little inn and shop" in St. Martins.
Later, we met Betty, the town's chief volunteer librarian. A school secretary, she'd been more or less shanghaied into the librarian job. Her mother was a professional librarian, and her father founded the Quaco Historical & Library Society.
According to their webpage, the Historical & Library Society was founded, in 1971, by a small group of residents around a kitchen table.
[They] agreed that their Society should promote an interest in the history of the Quaco-St. Martins area in New Brunswick and to create a museum and archives to preserve its artifacts and documents. They also decided to establish a general literature library to serve their community.
The library they describe as "a light-hearted, volunteer-run community library with an amazing selection of popular and classic novels, non-fiction titles and reference works. We are especially proud of our children’s section. New books and the classics get equal shelf space."
Personally, I'm impressed by how "professional" it looks. (You could eat off that floor.) But Betty's most proud of something else. One day, she told us, someone said to her, "Oh Betty, you have made this place where people can come and get together and talk."
We met other people. Local children's author Sara O'Leary dropped by (before heading off to volunteer duties at the library). We met the St. Martins & District Chamber of Commerce president, Kathy Miller-Zinn. I didn't see any provincial or federal representatives; but, then, there was a lady out front collecting signatures on a petition protesting the EI changes, so, maybe it was all for the best.
Anyway, like I said, they were interested in talking about literacy and books. I think maybe they were pleased to have a chance to do some justified bragging. But they were also isolated from the larger New Brunswick literacy community. Of course, that's partly because there isn't any larger New Brunswick literacy community - especially for people doing community based literacy work. Our province has some shaky adult literacy and early childhood literacy networks of a sort, but there is no organized support for community literacy.
And yet, what could be more natural than organizing literacy efforts around geographic locations? You can't do community literacy work from an office in Fredericton, I grumbled to my colleague.
"You can't really do community literacy work unless it's personal," she said. She reminded me how often we had talked about feeling like Crescent Valley was home to us, even though we lived elsewhere. "It's our community - we're part of it. It's personal."
I don't know when or if we'll get out to St. Martins again. They really don't need us, and we'll only ever be visitors from outside. But I wouldn't mind a chance to sit around one of those kitchen tables and listen to them brag a little more. We could help hook them up with the Summer Reading Club program. We might even be able to help them find some other literacy money. On the other hand, a different word for isolated is self-sufficient. In the community literacy field, that's an often overlooked strength.
Quick facts from the web:
St. Martins was settled in 1783 by a detachment of the King’s Orange Rangers (Loyalist soldiers from Orange and Duchess Counties, New York). The original name, Quaco, derived from Micmac for “haunt of the hooded seal”. The third largest producer of wooden sailing vessels in NB, the township launched more than 500 vessels over the next 125 years. Today, it is a retirement and tourist destination, with a year-round population of about 400 people.