Jane Peiffer owns a library.
It’s in a former bank building on the main drag in tiny Prairie du Rocher, a town of 650 people.
Not bad for a woman who really didn’t like reading until she was 39.
“I hated to read. I was a poor reader,” said Jane, 62, standing in the midst of 7,000-plus books.
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“I read a sentence five times before moving on. My mother (Rosemary Greer, an Emge school secretary) read all the time. Always. She sent me John Grisham’s ‘A Time To Kill.’ She said, ‘Jane, you need to read this book.’ I struggled through it. John Grisham is a wonderful writer.”
Jane got hooked. So much so that she wants everyone to be.
When a struggling high school junior asked for a book suggestion, Jane recommended “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (by Ransom Riggs) about a teen, a mysterious island and a most unusual school.
“It’s been a joy,” Jane said. “She called me on a Saturday morning and said, ‘You have got to read that book. I was reading in study hall. The bell rang and I didn’t notice.’ She’s now excited about reading. That’s what it’s all about. Get them excited and they read other things.”
The Cahokia High School math teacher spent much of her first year of retirement putting the new library together. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, she and a handful of friends painted and stocked shelves.
“You are about two hours behind a real mess,” said Jane. “We just got everything off floors and on shelves. The ladies in the safe are priming the walls where we are going to put little kids stuff. We’re going to paint the walls sky blue and I’m going to paint a mural. I’m going with kids storybook characters.
“Naturally, we have to have the Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland, the rabbit running. I have got Dr. Seuss somewhere in one corner. Then, I am going to put the Pooh guys, Tigger and his buddy. I paint murals and, believe it or not, I was a high school math teacher for 24 years. The last 10 years, we lived down here. We bought a home two blocks down the street. Our grand plan was to open a bed and breakfast. Before I taught school, I was a restaurateur.”
That day’s painters were sisters-in-law Kathy Franklin and Linda Franklin, both retired school teachers.
“We are just good friends with Jane,” said Kathy, who taught junior high social studies, “and love to read.”
Millida Ellner, a retired factory worker, and Judy Derterding sorted books.
“We’re just glad to see things come back into this small town,” said Judy.
Jane watched them put books on shelves.
“I doesn’t come after J,” she said.
“When you are working backwards, it does,” said Judy.
Change in plans
Ten years ago, Jane and husband Ernie looked far and wide for just the right place for a bed and breakfast. They were living in Belleville and considered as far north as Highland, as far south as Carterville and as far east as Nashville.
“This was the 16th house we saw,” she said. “We fell in love with the house. We quit looking. We saw it in November, moved in in March, and by May, we were in love with the town.”
The plan was to have guests stay in a little house on the property. Then, life happened. Jane’s father (Freeman Greer, former superintendant of Cahokia District 187) moved into the little house.
“It is a bed and breakfast,” said Jane. “He beds down and eats breakfast there. We just don’t get any money from him.”
She and Ernie got involved in the town. Ernie, retired from Turner Electric, is part-time postmaster at Ellis Grove. He got a spot on the school board and the village board. Jane started a quilting guild. Both enjoy playing bridge and going to auctions.
“I collect antiques. I would buy boxes of books.”
Before Jane knew it, she had a thousand.
“We were sitting around one evening, talking about it. With this many books, we could start a library.”
Jane got the town’s blessing and found a home for the books in the Catholic school basement.
“There were all these shelves in the pie room,” said Jane. “The only time they use it is for the summertime picnic and they have religious class in there once a week before school. They agreed we could borrow the space. The shelves were immediately full.”
She found larger quarters in part of a former bank that housed Pensoneau Construction. The business allowed the library to move into its unused space rent free. After Pensoneau moved out and the building went up for sale, Jane and Ernie talked about buying the brick building with two pillars in front.
Looking for a sign
Jane wanted a sign that sinking her savings into expanding the library was the thing to do.
Sure, her husband supported her.
“He reads more than I do,” she said. “He also knew this was my passion.”
But she wavered.
“I was in the library working in the kids department one day,” said Jane, referring to a former vault crammed with books. “I thought, ‘Lord, maybe this isn’t the thing we should do. I was really praying. Lord, if I am not doing right thing, you need to tell me.’ I hadn’t signed the bottom line yet.”
She picked up a book called “The Spyglass,” a fable about faith by Richard Paul Evans.
“It was beautifully illustrated. I just started reading. It’s about a man who comes to an impoverished kingdom. Everything is in total disarray. The man shows the king a spyglass, and through it, he sees everything as beautiful and how his kingdom could be. When people see (the possibilities), they make things happens. The king doesn’t want to give back the spyglass. He said, ‘If we don’t have it, we can’t be successful.’ The man tells the king the spyglass isn’t what makes you successful; your faith does.
“I thought, ‘OK, Lord.’ He didn’t quite speak to me, but almost.”
The Peiffers went to Buena Vista bank and made an offer.
“My husband said they won’t take that offer. Well, they did and we bought us a building.
“Me. I don’t have any children. Who’s going to fight over my money? Nobody. There’s not going to be any left. I think it’s important that people read. If you can give them a good place to come, and can recommend a good book, all the better.”
A homey place
The Peiffers hired a contractor who spent two months remodeling the 1906 building that was a bank till 1988.
“There was real pretty crown moulding, but some had fallen,” said Jane. “I am thinking of cutting them up and making bookends.”
The two vaults remain, but he tore out a wall, redid the ceiling, shored up the kitchen area floor, put on a new roof and added insulation. To pay the construction loan, Jane uses her Social Security checks.
The library walls are painted buttery yellow. The worn wood desk near the entrance is the same one Jane used in her classroom. More than 7,000 books fill library shelves.
“We bought Walmart bookcases, $27.84 each,” said Jane. “They were sturdy. Most have lasted nine years.”
After an open house the first weekend in May, the new library is up and running.
“We have eight volunteers,” said Jane. “Our hours have expanded. We were only open two days a week prior to this. Now, we’re open four.
She’s pleased with how the library turned out.
“I’ve been as busy as a cranberry merchant,” she said. “It’s more spacious and clean and comfortable. So many have said, ‘This feels like I’m coming into your home.’ I can understand that because a lot of my furniture is here. The little lamps, I put those on short bookcases in the windows. I leave the lights on at night. They give a nice little glow.”
A Prairie du Rocher grocery store display case, once in Jane’s dining room, is now in the library. It will hold displays of historic items, such as band uniforms and a bass drum from the 1940s, borrowed from folks in town.
“People in town collect neat things,” she said. “One of my other passions is quilting. ... We will have a quilt show in fall. We will use the library to show quilts.”
A Saturday morning children’s reading hour and a teen book club are also in the works. So is a book dedication program.
“If you want to buy or donate a book in the name of a person who taught you to read, or taught you to want to read, we will put a dedication at the front,” she said. “I’m working on a dedication to my mother.
“Several older folks in tow say to me, ‘What are you going to get out of this? People don’t invest this kind of money without financial return.’ I’m doing it because we need a library. Everything in life isn’t tied to money. I want to leave my mark in this world for a good thing. That’s why I taught.”
As Jane talked about her philosophy, Kathy put down her paint roller and came out to add her comment.
“Jane has been a real shaker and mover in this town,” she said. “One of her greatest successes is ecumenical. She started a quilting guild to get people who haven’t learned to learn from pros. She started in our church basement and cafeteria. Women came down and quilted. Thre are 15 to 20 now.”
Now, the Catholics from St. Joseph’s and Prairie du Rocher Baptists are quilting together, helping each other’s causes. And younger women are showing an interest.
“It has cemented a relationship between generations,” said Jane. “Reading does that, too.”
Want to read a good book?
Here’s what Jane and friends at Prairie du Rocher’s library recommend:
“The Jefferson Key,” by Steve Berry. “He writes mysteries that are centered around something true in history, then takes a twist on it,” said Jane. The story is believable and seems possible.
Any Jan Karon book. “She’s one of my favorite women writers,” said Jane. “She writes about a small town and an Episcopalian minister. Her books make you cry and laugh out loud.”
Jennifer Chiaverini books. “She bases her books on quilts,” said Jane. “There’s always a quilt in the story.”
“All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, said Linda. Set in occupied France during World War II, the novel centers on a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross.
“The Remedy for Love,” by Bill Roorbach. A man and woman ride out a storm together after a chance meeting.
“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. “It was tremendous as far as nonfiction goes,” Kathy said.
“The Light Between Oceans,” by M.L. Stedman. It’s a heartbreaker about what happens when a childless couple find a baby.
Prairie du Rocher Community Library
Where: 402 Market St.
Hours: 6-8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to noon Thursdays; and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays
Information: 618 284-7323