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Jeanette Kamman's Library For Orphans

Michael Dvorak

THE KAMMAN-DALE LIBRARY FOR ORPHANS, located in three adjacent houses on St. Paul's west side, occupies the better part of 30 rooms, sundry stairwells, various closets and cupboards, and two bathtubs. Although the library was recognized in the 1977 edition of The Hill Directory of Library and Informational Resources, it has received few visitors over the years, and it has no formal lending policy, no cataloging system, no regular hours, and intermittent electricity.

The library's founder and sole custodian, a small and somewhat disheveled St. Paul woman, has long been the subject of speculation and bemusement among local book collectors. For the past half-century, the woman, who is known variously as the Book-Bag Lady, the Book Bag-Lady, or simply the Book Lady, has been materializing at local secondhand bookstores, church-basement bazaars, sidewalk flea markets, estate sales, and going-out-of-business liquidations. She has no demonstrated concern for the value of the books she buys, and she shows no particular interest in selling or trading them. Yet she unfailingly gathers dozens of volumes and wobbles off beneath a cascading hillock of cast-off histories, out-of-date textbooks, discarded high school yearbooks, and dog-eared paperbacks. As best her fellow collectors can divine, the books are all destined for the library, rumored to be a vast repository of genealogical information.

Even those who know Jeanette Kamman by name have only cloudy notions of her purposes. Clark Hansen, a local collector of books about Minnehaha Falls, met Kamman in the

early 1970s when he was running a bookstore in Minneapolis. "She came in and just sort of started pulling books off the shelves," he recalls.

After learning that Kamman had no means of transportation, Hansen offered to drive her and her books home. He has kept in close contact with her over the years, and he reckons that he now knows her as well as anyone does. He occasionally delivers carloads of books that he thinks may suit her tastes--no easy task, since Kamman's collecting encompasses vast swaths of literature and history, philosophy and flotsam.

"She has such an enormous area of interest that it's hard to pinpoint," Hansen explains. "She's interested in history and genealogy and the origins of things. She sees connections in everything. That's an important feature in the psychology of her collecting: She's trying to draw connections between all the branches of human endeavor."

Hansen also drops by Kamman's home from time to time. Like all of her guests, he remains perpetually astonished by the sheer magnitude of her bibliomania. No one who has seen Kamman's library can say with certainty how many books she has amassed. Hansen used to estimate her collection at 50,000 volumes, which would rank it alongside many of the city's smaller public libraries. The current aggregate is likely two or three times that. Kamman's library is of such vast and unwieldy proportions that it sometimes seems to be growing of its own accord. It has taken on the character of a creeping tropical vine, which, having found favorable soil in which to lay root, sprawls across continents.

The startling propagation of Kamman's library has also necessitated an expansion of its quarters. In 1977, discovering that she had filled the house she has lived in since 1968 with books and could no longer make her way from one end to the other without stumbling over them, Kamman bought the house next door. She filled it too, and in 1992 bought the house next to it as well, a dignified two-story Victorian that happened to be vacant.

Kamman's library is situated in the Selby-Dale neighborhood in a quiet, tree-lined area scattered with old brick churches and silent mansions. There is nothing outwardly remarkable about it except the stacks of books that crowd the window-panes--Kamman considers them the ideal buffer against traffic noise--and a sign taped in one window so that it faces the street, which reads, in the cut-and-paste lettering style of a ransom note, "They're Killing Us! Protect Yourself."

Kamman has long been possessed by the notion that the official representatives of the City of St. Paul mean her ill, and the sign serves to keep all but the nosiest of them away. City inspectors nevertheless drop by every few years to leave notices of condemnation on Kamman's door. One of the few officials Kamman tolerates is Fred Owusu, director of the city's Citizen Service Office: As a gesture of goodwill she sometimes gives him books about Thomas Jefferson, a subject in which Owusu has demonstrated no interest. He maintains that the city's inquisitiveness is primarily benign. "She's a very special lady," he says. Owusu worries, in particular, that Kamman might one day be buried by an avalanche of books and be unable to free herself.

Kamman is unimpressed by authority, however, and remains convinced that the inspectors intend mischief. "My books need a home," she often says with a note of defiance. Kamman has repeatedly petitioned the city for a zoning variation to make her houses an officially recognized library, and she has repeatedly been turned down.

 

 

Kamman's front door has been barricaded by books since a burglar broke in a few years ago to steal the stained glass in the transom. Instead, she now uses a side door that opens onto a small, overgrown plot of scrub trees and broken stones that she has dubbed the Garden of Eden. A fat gray rabbit lives in the brush, and on sunny days Kamman comes out on the stoop to commune with it. The rabbit's appearance is a highly auspicious occasion.

Inside, the radio is always on--an inexpensive radio/alarm clock that Kamman listens to while sitting at her kitchen table, where she spends most of the day. Kamman is partial to talk shows, and the constant burble of conversation becomes a pleasant background accompaniment to her work, which consists mostly of clipping newspaper articles and pressing them into notebooks. Kamman admits that she often becomes confused while listening to Rush Limbaugh. "He's in limbo and he doesn't even know it," she says. "Plus, he's going deaf, like me."

Kamman doesn't hear well in one ear. She wears thick bifocals as well, and her tea-colored eyes are weak. She favors cardigan sweaters and often wears a red button on her lapel that reads "Library Lover." Her well-worn wardrobe is evidence of a general disdain for vanity. "This body is nothing," she announces while holding out a loosely fleshed arm. "It's not the same substance as the spirit." Kamman is a devout Catholic and is partial to the funeral mass. She will attend services even for those she did not know well in life and she keeps a stack of memorial leaflets.

Kamman is compact and moves slowly, with a slightly hipshot shuffle. She does not own a car and relies on her feet and public transportation to get around. While she does not range as widely as she once did, and does most of her shopping at a convenience store down the street, she nevertheless manages admirably for a woman of 74. This she attributes to a lifelong regimen of manhandling loads of books from one end of Christendom to the other. "I've built up strong book muscles," she says.

Kamman has a special affection for owls. Like all her affections, this one shades toward obsession: She has collected hundreds of owl pictures, owl-related knickknacks, and owl figurines, which now peer sleepily from the crannies between her books. Perched on her kitchen chair--along with a bed and a corner of the kitchen table, one of three horizontal surfaces in her house not covered by books--Kamman rather resembles an owl herself. She is large-hearted by nature and gregarious by temperament and, left to her own devices, will ramble at great length about almost anything. A conversation with Kamman tends to be a one-sided and pleasantly disorienting affair; one gets the sense that it would not suffer greatly if one were to get up and suddenly leave the room.

One of Kamman's favorite topics is graphology, which she began studying seriously in 1951. Kamman believes that a person's handwriting is ample evidence of her character: A messy, flowing hand signifies positive energy, while a blocky unyielding script suggests sociopathy. Adolf Hitler is her typical example of the latter; Bill Clinton of the former.

Kamman is, in fact, particularly taken with the Clintons and has kept up a voluminous one-way correspondence with them since their days in Arkansas. (She never neglects to send Mr. and Mrs. Clinton a greeting card on their respective birthdays.) Kamman was advised to contact the couple, she says, by one Mrs. DeMuelles, a medium who used to keep a storefront in downtown St. Paul and who was consulted regularly by Kamman before her death (and for some time afterward). At a campaign rally in 1992, when Clinton was running for election, Kamman had occasion to see the man himself at the Target Center in Minneapolis. "Watching him walk around--he looked like a king," she recalls. "He looked like King David." Kamman does not seem entirely convinced that Clinton is no longer president, and she shows no interest in the office's current resident, except to say that the country is going rapidly to hell.

"There's more confusion in the world nowadays," she says. "Some people are out there looking for answers. Some just want more confusion. The question is, Where are you going to be? You've got to start looking for answers someplace." Kamman has been listening to the world fall apart on the radio, and she is troubled by it. "It wasn't like this during the war; we were far away and it didn't have anything to do with us. There was nothing to fear. The world has gotten too small." Kamman sees this as evidence that that world is spinning off its axis. She is an ardent eschatologist and has been keeping an eye out recently for signs that the last days are upon us.

 

"We need to get some integration in this messy world," she says. Integration is Kamman's preferred term for anything that holds back the tide of entropy. "All these people trying to build lives around lies and discrepancies. That's what I'm doing with my books: trying to paste together my life. I'm looking for some kind of symmetry. If I can keep continuity, maybe I can get some stability. Stability is everything these days."

Kamman is a great believer in order, and she is vexed that it has so completely and fabulously eluded her. She regards with an air of slight disbelief the books that spill out of drawers and cupboards, line the walls, and jut from the floor like ragged volcanic islands. It is as though they simply appeared on her doorstep one day and demanded lodging. The books now have run of the house, to the degree that the function of rooms is no longer discernible. For example, Kamman's cookbooks are not warehoused in the kitchen. There simply happens to be a stove in the room where the cookbooks reside. A collection of mass-market paperbacks has taken up recent residence in the bathroom, from which emanates a distinctly fungal odor.

Kamman has made various failed attempts to organize her collection. The section at the foot of the stairs, for instance, is devoted primarily to what Kamman calls her "power books"--volumes that deal explicitly with politics or that mention the word power in their title. It's a catch-all taxonomy: A 1970s academic review of the U.S. national-security apparatus, Power at the Pentagon, rubs shoulders with a paperback on power protein diets. "Power is a powerful word," she explains. "Who has it, and who doesn't? It's like a whole world of ideas just disappeared into this house somehow."

As much as Kamman appreciates the word power, she considers faith preferable and has devoted the adjacent bookshelf to tomes dealing in the latter. Peering out from beneath a treatise on Nicaraguan guerrilla movements--Breaking Faith--is a cloth copy of an Edna Ferber book called A Peculiar Treasure.

Kamman stops beneath a portrait of the Dionne Quintuplets, the subject of a lifelong fascination, and retrieves a plaque that she acquired by mail, and which acclaims in the most generic terms possible her professional excellence as a librarian. Next to the plaque she uncovers an old tourist map of Hastings, Minnesota, where Kamman was born in 1926.

  Kamman is uncharacteristically guarded on the issue of her childhood: "It was before the Age of Reason," she often says cryptically. When pressed, she will say that her father, Roy Sommers, was a manager at the Northern Cooperage. Kamman had a sister, Jeanelle, and the two were raised as twins--they were nicknamed "Nelly" and "Nutty." The family grew up in a western St. Paul house--Kamman's only clear memory of the place is a walk-in root cellar--and Kamman attended Humboldt High School for three years. She was afflicted throughout adolescence with spells of dizziness and poor eyesight, as well as a prickly sense of existential dread.

As a girl, Kamman explains, she felt as though she did not fit into the Sommers family, and she eventually came to believe that she was the orphaned daughter of a psychiatrist named Gordon Kamman. The fact that she has uncovered no documentation of this has not dissuaded her. "In those days, they threw children all over the place," she says. "It wasn't like today, where everyone has papers. They tried to keep things quiet."

She pulls out a green photo album and points out the doctor, a thin, unsmiling man in a raincoat and fedora. In the 1950s, after meeting the woman Kamman came to believe was her mother at a picnic, she had her name legally changed.

In January of 1945, Kamman got a job as a typist for the Ramsey County Welfare Office, where she stayed until her retirement in 1985. (The library's principal source of financial support is her civil-service pension, supplemented by a lifetime of assiduous penny-pinching). Kamman calls her time with the welfare office her 40 Years in the Wilderness. "After typing other people's words," she says. "I had millions of them running through my head."

In the late 1950s, Kamman went to night school at the University of Minnesota to study history and political science. She is particularly interested in the former--"You have to have history to have stability," she often says--and has an expansive collection of old college textbooks concerning the political systems of China and Russia.

 

Kamman has never married and has lived alone for many decades. She has had two boarders, however. One was an ancient Italian railroad tramp whom Kamman inherited with the house and who haunts one of the upstairs rooms. "He up and died on me," she says. The other was Frank Germann, a retired civil engineer and onetime Libertarian candidate for governor who was then a recent college graduate looking for cheap quarters. "Jeanette was always sort of a packrat," Germann recalls. "She used to have meetings at her house. I didn't pay too much attention, but I remember they were all single, middle-aged women, housewives mostly. How should I say it? They were people who weren't noteworthy in any way."

On one occasion, Germann met the Sommers family. "I believed her story about being an orphan until I went to her parents' house. Her mother kind of looked like Jeanette. Her father was tall and pretty robust. He was a military guy, and I remember he spoke Chinese. I asked him about Jeanette, and he kind of shook his head. Curiously, I noticed that her sister looked just like her."

Germann visited Kamman not too long ago and is concerned that her eccentricities may have grown more pronounced in recent years. "The kitchen is the only room I was in. There's a lot more junk in there than before. Jeanette knows the paths through her books. But I hope they don't collapse on her. I don't know how long it would be before anyone started missing her."

By the time Germann moved out in the late Sixties, Kamman had already begun assembling her grand enterprise, a library that she hoped would one day help her fellow orphans reconstruct their broken family trees. Her genealogical collection, which she calls her "orphan books," is now segregated in one quiet corner of the house. The volumes deal in large part with the turn-of-the-century "orphan trains" that carried thousands of unwanted children from the teeming ghettos of the East Coast and deposited them on the Great Plains. Kamman believes that the rootless and wandering descendants of this exodus may number in the millions. Kamman identifies strongly with the biblical figure of Moses--another orphan, she notes--and tends to equate her library with Moses' guidance of the lost tribes to the edge of the Promised Land. Kamman believes that the answers to all our questions are waiting to be discovered in her books. On this point, her faith is unassailable.

Since the mid-1930s, Kamman has been organizing a series of scrapbooks--her attempt, she says, to piece together her own history and provide a record of her existence. She keeps a creased index of her scrapbooks, covering the period beginning in March of 1951 and ending in February 1960, laid out on the kitchen table. The titles include: "Those Misfits (They'll Drive You Crazy)," "The Jinx (Jonah in the Whale)," "A Twisted Mind (At Loose Ends)," and "Human Beings (What Fools We Mortals Be)." All told, Kamman estimates that she has compiled 20,000 pages of material--a hodgepodge of old photographs, snippets of poetry, brittle and yellow newspaper clippings, and comics arranged thematically. After running low on empty 60-page scrapbooks, she recently began collecting material between the pages of magazines. Her latest, "A Rose by Any Other Name," is pressed inside a back issue of Stress-Free Living.

Kamman believes that we are all, in one way or another, orphans.

 

Kamman's relentless collecting has, over the years, taken her across the path of nearly every other book mole in the area. Among them, she is regarded affectionately as an instructive example of bibliomania: There, but for the grace of God...

Jim Cummings, a patriarch of Twin Cities book dealers who now lives in Wisconsin, recalls shivering through bone-chilling winter mornings before book sales alongside Kamman. "This is a ferocious city for book scouts,"--the vulturine genus of collectors who congregate wherever potentially valuable books are sold--"and it was always a footrace when the doors opened. I'd always been a little overweight and as soon as the race began I'd fall from sixth in line to fortieth. Anyway, one time I was running second to last and I noticed that someone was passing me and that it was Jeanette. That's when I decided to get in shape.

"She's a dear, sweet, kind of befuddled lady with a whimsical mind," Cummings continues. "She'd always be at the church sales where they were selling books for 25 cents apiece. She'd wrestle those things off. I don't know what use there is in going to churches and carting all that crap off and hoarding it. But then, what use is there in anything we do? If everyone was as eccentric as Jeanette, the world would be a better place."

 

Cummings, like many local book collectors, used to visit Kamman's library on occasion in the hopes that some rare treasure may have gone unnoticed among the jetsam. And, like many collectors, he eventually came to consider it time wasted. "It was amazing. But as far as putting together anything of consequence, I don't know. My feeling was that it doesn't have much, if any, value."

Kamman has been exceptionally generous with her collection--"Book people need each other like a family," she often says--and, as a consequence, her library has been repeatedly picked over through the years. What remains are the books for which the world has no use and in which only Kamman finds value--her orphans. Her library has nevertheless produced the occasional unlikely curio. She keeps an eye out for local history books, for instance, and trades them either with Clark Hansen or Pat Coleman, a bibliographer at the Minnesota Historical Society. To Bob Olson, a genealogist in Hastings who painted two of her three houses, Kamman ceded 40 years' worth of obituaries. "Everything she has is valuable," Olsen says. "It's just not valuable to anyone but her."

On a whim, Olson once searched out Kamman's records in the Hastings genealogical archive. "There was a murder in her family some time back, but she claims it's not her real family. I looked at her birth record, but who knows? There are a lot of secrets from back then that never get uncovered." Like most people who listen to Kamman's tale, Olson is inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

And Kamman's fascination with genealogy has occasionally borne fruit. Kathy Stransky, who along with her husband Tom owns St. Paul's Midway Books, has known Kamman for decades. "What stands out the most," Stransky says, "is that one time I mentioned that I was a foster kid and that I was interested in finding out who my parents were. Jeanette and I talked about it for a while. Then, a few months later, she showed up with an old picture of a priest with my maiden name. She was very excited, and said, 'Look, he's got your nose.' And he did. I never found out for sure, but I wondered about it. That's what's wonderful about Jeanette: She gets a hold of an idea and she won't let it go."

In an odd confluence, Kamman also crossed paths some years ago with the most famous bibliomane in recent American history, a St. Paul native named Stephen Blumberg. In the mid-1980s, Blumberg, an unkempt and spectral young man obsessed with Victoriana, was clandestinely salvaging the stately houses doomed by Interstate 94's clear-cut through the Twin Cities. (His goal, he said at the time, was to steal Minneapolis wholesale and sell it to Texas.) Unbeknownst to all but his intimate acquaintances, Blumberg had also begun a concerted assault on the nation's libraries, slithering through heating ducts, lurking in the stacks after closing time, and hauling out books by the thousands. When the FBI finally raided his dilapidated house in Ottumwa, Iowa, his library, later dubbed the Blumberg Collection, became instant legend: He had amassed tens of thousands of rare books, initially appraised at $20 million and weighing 19 tons.

Kamman, who met Blumberg through Clark Hansen, disapproves of his methods: "I never did think much of him," she says. But among collectors who know them both, there is a quiet admission that Blumberg and Kamman represent mere degrees of the obsession that all bibliophiles share, that the impulse driving them is substantially the same. On this account, at least, they may be right: Even after Blumberg was convicted--it took a jury only four hours to reject his not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea--he maintained that he had not intended to hoard the books he stole; he was rescuing them from dusty oblivion.

 

Kamman is happy to share her collection with visitors, and on one recent afternoon, with a winter chill blowing in from the west, she suggested an expedition to the house where the library's main body is entombed. We made our way across the Garden of Eden, keeping an eye out for Kamman's rabbit. Kamman had not been in the house in a number of years, and she regarded it somewhat anxiously. The siding was weathered, but on balance it seemed to be in fairly good shape.

Kamman picked her way across a screen porch she had added a few years ago to increase the house's storage capacity, and cleared a footpath between two 8-foot-tall book mountains. The books were overflow from other areas and were unorganized: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Postwar Japan, a 1973 yearbook from Frank B. Kellogg High School, Albert Camus's The Possessed. Kamman jiggled her key in the front door, but it declined to yield more than a few inches. Peering through the crack and into the deep shadows beyond, we saw that an avalanche of paperbacks had spilled across the floorboards of the foyer. "I'm just a poor bookkeeper," Kamman said apologetically. "Books need a home. Even if no one else wants them."

 

After wrestling enough of the pile aside to proceed, we wriggled into a high-ceilinged entryway. It was dry and cold inside, and the only available light crept through a grit-shrouded window on the second floor. Like heat, electricity is a sporadic variable in Kamman's world. She usually carries a heavy flashlight with her to keep from tripping in the darkness. Thick sheets of cobweb hung from the oak paneling, and the room smelled of abandonment. Scabs of plaster were peeling off the ceiling, as though the house were slowly sloughing its skin. Telltale piles of gnawed insulation and paper indicated that a colony of mice had taken up permanent residence. The dust bunnies may have been on the verge of founding their own civilization.

Kamman poked about the anteroom, past a teetering tower of paperback Agatha Christie mysteries, an imposing pile of New York Times subject indexes for the years 1977 and 1978, A Short History of England, and The Colonial Record of Georgia. She could not recall when or by what means these books were acquired. Many were stamped along their flank with the names of libraries that haven't existed for years. Others were filled with the crabbed annotations of previous owners. Kamman studied them each with equal interest, as though she were discovering their existence for the first time.

During World War II, when this was a boarding house, the interior was divided into small suites connected by low and narrow hallways. As a consequence, finding one's way around in the half-lit gloom was rather like navigating a labyrinth: Each room seemed to open onto four more, and none was distinguishable from the last. They were all stuffed, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall, with books. The books no longer seemed like books: In this vast quantity, they took on a topographical aspect, became the dominant feature of the terrain. The possibility of being trapped by a book-slide or, worse, becoming permanently lost in this netherworld of outcast words, seemed suddenly very real.

Kamman found her way around by memorizing the location of certain volumes. A hill of books about France, for instance, meant that we were in the old kitchen, while a pile of Library of Congress catalogs suggested a former bathroom. There were books in drawers and books in cupboards. Kamman lifted a piece of fallen plaster and inspected an iron bathtub, also overflowing with books. "All spirits take up space," she said, apropos nothing.

We continued gingerly to the second floor. A leaking roof had left rust-brown water-damage stains along the walls, and there was a perceptible dip in the floor where a half-dozen overfull bookshelves rested. Nevertheless, the house seemed to be wearing its age well. Kamman tested the lights in each room and giggled happily when they happened to work. "The spirits wanted me to have this house. I stopped on the street outside, and I just couldn't go any further. I knew this was the one. I don't think I was guided by the wrong spirits, do you?"

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, the walls were covered with graffiti, anthropological evidence of former occupants: "All is well," the scrawl assured; "Fuck school." Strips of faded and damp wallpaper decorated with tropical fish clung here and there to the drywall. A lopsided portrait of Jesus on black velvet peeked from behind a case of presidential biographies. The Mystic Path of Cosmic Power, a paperback cover promised. "You've got to laugh or cry," Kamman said. The books stretched to a vanishing point in the darkness. We agreed that it's better to laugh.

"I'm trying to preserve some of the house's secrets," she continued while poking about in a dining room that hadn't seen use for decades. "It's a memory house, I call it. It's better than a library, because libraries throw things away when they're done with them. Here, nothing gets thrown out."

While rooting in a cabinet, Kamman uncovered a manila envelope filled with black-and-white photographs. They were pictures of herself, taken at a 1953 meeting of the Graphoanalysis Society. She reeled off the names of the other, now-dead people in them. Kamman, in black tortoise-shell glasses and a short bob, hovered at the edge of every frame, smiling her secret smile.

 

The photos put Kamman in a reflective mood. She tucked them carefully back into the envelope and slid it beneath a pile of miscellaneous papers. "You do strange things when your mind gets in a groove," she finally said. "You get so overwhelmed with your own case. My little world gets upside-down. The spirits told me I'm going to live to be quite old, whatever that means. So maybe there'll be time to get organized still."

Kamman worked her way through another half-blocked doorway and into a bathroom filled with books about psychiatry. She shoved a pile of them aside to reveal a pair of framed photos on the wall behind the tub: A well-dressed man and woman, each with a faint half-smile. The day was failing quickly, but, in the half-light, there seemed more than a passing family resemblance between Kamman and the couple. The man, she claimed, had introduced her to Gordon Kamman, the psychiatrist she came to regard as her real father. "He said I shouldn't go to school," Kamman said, gazing at the picture. "He said it wouldn't do me any good. He said I was too smart for my family." Kamman studied the photographs intently, searching the faces for clues that, like those scattered through the rest of her library, only she could discern.

I considered asking Kamman about the man and woman--How were they entangled in the mystery of her birth? Had her books yielded any answers?--but thought better of it. We should all be allowed to live in the labyrinth of our choosing.

Kamman took a last look around, and then we left the library, careful to shut off the lights and lock the doors behind us. Outside, snow had begun to fall and the season's first frost was on the Garden of Eden. Kamman was wondering what will become of her library when the last days come. "Will they tote all my books up to heaven?" she asked. "A library is a beautiful place to spend eternity."


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