50,000 Books Along the Banks of the South Platte

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is a Globeville Treasure

The Rocky Mountain Land Library focuses on connecting people to the land. Photo courtesy of The Rocky Mountain Land Library

Jeff Lee and Ann Martin, then book buyers for Denver’s iconic Tattered Cover Book Store, traveled to the London Book Fair in the mid 90s, but not without first making a pitstop in Wales. 

The couple had read about Gladstone’s Library, a residential library with over 250,000 books dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for those looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions per the library’s website. 

During their stay at the literary haven, Lee reminisced on the wide array of guests he observed using the books (and the property itself) for distinct academic and personal pursuits, including an American nun working on a biography of Charles Darwin. In addition to the quiet workspaces the library provided, residents were also using it as a home base for exploring the Welsh countryside. “I think it was that combination of the books and the inspiring landscape that made Ann and I think…wouldn’t it be great if we could do this in Colorado?”

This question, along with their shared interest in natural history books, prompted the couple to set out on what has now become roughly three decades of work: imagining and creating the Rocky Mountain Land Library, a residential library and retreat center connecting people to the land.

In the early years of the project, Lee and Martin sought input from as many sources as possible to refine their idea. Through these conversations with friends and strangers alike, the pair reaffirmed it was a dream worth pursuing despite the inevitable challenges, most notably: choosing a location. 

At that point, the two had amassed well over 30,000 books, but without much capital, location options were limited. After years of discussions with ranch owners and stakeholders across Colorado, the library signed an affordable 95-year lease on a 60-acre ranch along the South Platte River near Fairplay, Colorado, owned by the City of Aurora. 

After finding the Buffalo Peaks Ranch property, momentum for the project continued to soar. In 2015, a widely read New York Times article helped put the library on the map. In 2017, the library set a lofty goal of raising $120,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to renovate the Cook’s House, and unexpectedly surpassed their goal by raising over $140,000. 

As the support continued to grow, so too did the challenges. The ranch had sat in a state of disrepair for several decades, meaning considerable renovations were needed before any books could safely be housed on the property. When asked whether it was always in the plan to have multiple locations, Lee responded, “I think we all thought the ranch was going to be an impossible enough project to get off the ground… why think of doing something else?” 

Given the tremendous undertaking of ranch rehabilitation, Lee and the team felt the logical next step was to find a second location, this time in Denver. 

Why Denver? First, for practical reasons: it’s where all of the books were being stored and where most of the funders were located. Alongside the practical need for a city location, Lee recounts how the team was interested in the “opportunity to tell the story of the land from an urban and a rural perspective.” 

The library then began renting their Globeville location on Washington Street, coincidentally also located along the South Platte River. At present, Lee estimates roughly 98% of the collection is stored in the library’s Globeville location. 

While the library team loves having the space in Globeville, Lee acknowledged rising real estate prices are a major threat to the library’s urban location, voicing “the reality is… we may not always be here. We’d love to, but we need to recognize that we may have to move at some point.” 

Per the library’s website, two themes have emerged from opening their urban branch: nature in the city, and living lighter on the land. This summer, the library hopes to engage with these themes by hosting an outdoor book club series centered around exploring lesser-known city parks. As Lee explains it, the club will focus on “parks that will surprise people… parks that, unless you live in the neighborhood, you probably don’t know about.”

“We can’t wait to get going,” Lee exclaims while discussing other summer plans for the library.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is located at 4800 Washington St in Globeville. Visit landlibrary.wordpress.com to join the newsletter or follow @landlibrary on Instagram to see photo updates on the project.

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