Under an enormous sky, the mountains around South Park meld into high prairie. At night, a darkness that eludes the city descends on a collection of weathered ranch buildings.
Step by step, the old horse barn, the bunkhouse and main house — once dusty and fallow — are being repaired and cleaned out in preparation for their next chapter. In an unexpected twist in the ranch’s story, this place will house books with intimate ties to the land.
At Buffalo Peaks Ranch, the books, the land and the people are intertwined. It’s just what Ann Martin and Jeff Lee, founders of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, imagined when they first began contemplating a “place-based library” in the 1990s.
They have plenty of books — Lee and Martin have been collecting for the library for 20 years and have amassed more than 35,000 volumes, a fraction of which reside at the ranch now. Visitors have camped there, but they can’t yet tuck into a bed or gather inside on a chilly evening for a meal cooked in a ranch building. Friends of the library have repaired leaky roofs and rehabilitated old single-pane windows. But the buildings still don’t have running water or electricity.
Lee and Martin hope their recently launched Kickstarter campaign, which asks donors for $125,000 to renovate the building they call Cook’s House, will bring them one step closer to realizing their vision.
“If we get that funding, it’s just a question of the timing of the permits and things like that,” Lee said. “With the funding, we can just move forward.”
The all-or-nothing crowdfunding effort is the first big public capital campaign the organization has undertaken. Grants and partnerships, with organizations such as HistoriCorps, have provided both workers on the ground at the ranch and funding, and the idea for the Land Library has inspired a corps of dedicated volunteers who have given their time and expertise.
“It’s kind of surprising, because we’ve been talking about the demise of the book, but people kind of love to be around books,” Martin said. “And actually staying at a library — living at a library for a while — that has an appeal, and it goes across all ages.”
“Wouldn’t this be wonderful in Colorado?”
Lee and Martin both come from “reading families,” they said. Growing up, “books were part of everything,” Martin said. (She’s currently reading “Jellyfish: A Natural History,” by Lisa-Ann Gershwin, and Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology.”)
“I have vivid memories of going to our local library every Saturday with my father, and how fun that was, and exciting — books I’d never seen before that I could actually take home with me,” Lee said. (His current read: “The Shepherd’s Life,” by James Rebanks.)
They met working at the Tattered Cover. Both celebrated their 30th anniversaries at the bookstore last year. The store sent Lee and Martin to the London Book Fair in the mid-1990s.
“Ann had heard of this residential library in Wales,” Lee said. “We thought, ‘What’s a residential library?’ ”
They scheduled a weekend there; it’s now called Gladstone’s Library.
“It was this amazing library side by side with just a plain, dormitory-like environment,” Lee said. “We totally loved the library, but we also used it for a jumping-off place to explore the Welsh countryside.
“The combination of the books, the place, the landscape got us thinking about, wow, wouldn’t this be wonderful in Colorado?”
There were snags along the way. In 2012, Martin and Lee had to move out of their rental home — which meant they also had to move the 30,000 or so natural history books they had collected. After a story about their dilemma ran in The Denver Post — complete with photos of rows of books stacked floor to ceiling in their basement — Acme Distribution Centers made them a stunning offer to move and store most of the books for the Land Library. They accepted.
Not long after this, Martin and Lee finally found a partnership for the library’s mountain home. Their contacts at Park County let them know that the City of Aurora, which owns Buffalo Peaks Ranch, was looking for a partner who could put the ranch buildings to community use. Aurora offered the Land Library a “modest lease,” Lee said, and they signed it.
“They were great partners from the beginning,” he added.
Now, some of the books are stored at Buffalo Peaks Ranch, where summer visitors can camp, attend a concert or photography workshop and be among some of the books (they spend the winter in plastic bins for protection). But “more than 95 percent are in storage in Denver,” Lee said.
A connection to the land in the city
Not everyone can make the trip to South Park, though. So the Land Library is also working toward having an urban home, in the Curtis Park neighborhood.
Eileen Roscina Richardson’s partner, writer Stephen Shoup, read about the Land Library in Poets and Writers magazine.
“We love books and nature, and it summed up a lot of our interests, and we’d never heard anything like it before,” said Richardson, an artist.
“The last paragraph of that article was, ‘we’re looking for an urban site,’ ” she said. She decided to get in touch — she might be able to help.
Richardson’s family owns the old Puritan Pie factory building at 2612 Champa St. In the fall, the Land Library hosted a pop-up event there. There are plans to make the location their urban home.
“We are still working out details about that,” she said. “But yes, there are books there, and it’s super exciting to bring that to that space.”
She and Shoup are now Land Library board members.
“Jeff and Ann are just such wonderful people, and it was really compelling,” Richardson said. “I felt so called to help them move forward with this vision they have of being surrounded by books. As an artist, that’s such a part of my creative process.”
Other Denverites taken with the idea have become immersed in the library as well. Architect Ted Schultz, landscape designer Allie Vostrejs and architectural designer Dan Mitchell gathered last week to show a reporter their plans for the ranch, including their sketches of the finished Cook’s House.
“It’s a really romantic idea, first of all, with the land and the books coming together,” Vostrejs said. “Part of it for me is that it’s about tangible things as well — it’s about connection to place and connection to each other, and those are tangible things.”
The three had been talking about how to design the library spaces in each building, how people browse books and how to create space for conversation.
“The nice thing about the Cook’s House is it’s a microcosm of the whole ranch,” Schultz said. “Because we do want to have residential capability — writers, artists, people can stay one night or six months. There’s a few bedrooms in the Cook’s House, so people can stay and don’t have to camp.”
They all had some nerves about the Kickstarter campaign — the library won’t see a dime if they don’t hit the goal. But they’d also all seen how the idea of the Land Library captures people’s imaginations.
“I think people see their own story in it, your own sense of place,” Schultz said. “I think that’s why people love it — they can see themselves in it.”