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The book on Dewey: He's one cool cat
Dewey stands by a stack of books at the front desk. (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

SPENCER, Iowa -- He has been featured in TV in Japan.

He has pen pals in England, Canada, South Africa, Belgium and France.

He's been the focus of newspaper articles in Jerusalem and radio talking points by Paul Harvey.

He has raised thousands of dollars for the library here and once prompted vacationers from Rhode Island to rent a car in Minneapolis so they could drive south and meet him.

Who is this teen-ager?

He is Dewey Readmore Books, likely the most famous "resident" in this, the Clay County seat. To be precise, he's a cat. The resident cat at the Spencer Public Library.

"The TV staff from Tokyo didn't believe me when I told them people arranged their vacations just so they could stop here to meet him," says Dewey's guardian, Spencer Public Library Director Vicki Myron. "But then a family from Rhode Island came in just to have their picture taken with him. They were on vacation and rented a car in Minneapolis just so they could drive down here and see Dewey."

The incident helped land Dewey -- and Spencer -- on the airwaves in Japan.

It illustrates how this cat has had life by the...tail...since 1988.

How it started

The thermometer read minus 10 degrees when Myron reported to work on the morning of Jan. 18, 1988. Once in the building, she heard a muffled whimpering sound coming from the library's bookdrop. She and another librarian soon uncovered one very small, very chilly yellow kitten under a pile of books.

"We didn't know if someone abandoned him, or if a Good Samaritan found him on the street and shoved him in the bookdrop to get him out of the cold," Myron says.

Whatever the case, the two-month-old marmalade tabby needed some TLC. And heat.

"His paws were frozen," she says. "We warmed him up and fed him and he just purred and cuddled. From day one we felt he'd be the right personality for the public. He's always loved people and meetings."

Meetings?

"Yes," Myron says, laughing. "When we're having a meeting, he'll sit outside the conference room and cry at the door until we let him in. He loves meetings as the people are a captive audience."

Dewey strides into the meeting, surveys the landscape and picks a friendly lap. Though he's involved in many meetings, he doesn't vote. He was named an honorary member of the Iowa Communications Network, after sitting in on dozens of its Spencer gatherings. The group gave him a nickname: Fiber Cat.

Does he leave? Only on three-day weekends when Myron takes him to her home. Otherwise, he eats, sleeps, climbs and socializes daily with patrons at the library.

"He sleeps any place," says library staff member Audrey Wheeler. "Generally he sleeps on chairs. We find his cat fur in the morning and clean it off."

Dewey has his own area in the back office space of the library. His "study" has a shelf of cat food, a few toys and a heated bed. He often prefers roaming the library after hours, often walking atop the lights. He then settles in a chair, choosing that over his official bunk.

A resident library cat isn't that uncommon. Gary Roma found more than 100 cats like Dewey in producing a 1999 documentary. A century ago the British government required libraries to have cats to track down mice which feasted on book glue and binding. There's still a Library Cat Society, which, of course, showcased Dewey in a book: "Library Cats Just Making A Living."

Seems Dewey's done just that. Friends of the Spencer Public Library posed Dewey for their group's postcards. The cards were a hit and are still sold as a fund-raiser for the group. To date, Dewey's cards have generated about $4,000.

The Friends group compensates Dewey by paying his medical bills. A family in New York sends the library money each year for his food. Other food costs are picked up by staff members or local donors.

Library cards show Dewey's mug. "The cards are made by Watson Label Products and it's the company's favorite card," Myron says. "For every trade show they attend, they use a giant blow-up of his photo atop a computer."

Dewey Readmore Books from Spencer is a conversation piece at trade shows across the nation. Talk about him even reached a party in New York City a few years ago.

"Jack Manders, who has since moved away from Spencer, was a board member at the library here," Myron says. "He went to New York City to take his daughter to college. While they were there, Jack and the other parents of the college students attended a cocktail party. A couple from out east began talking to him and when he said he was from Iowa, they asked, 'Do you know where Spencer is?'

"Jack told them that's where he lived," Myron says.

"Have you ever been to the library?" they asked.

"I'm on the board," he answered.

Says Myron, "They were so excited. They told everyone they'd met Dewey's daddy!"

Friendly face

Beyond the publicity, there is the day-to-day work Dewey does. Myron maintains he's an important part of the Spencer Public Library staff.

"I like to see Dewey when we come here," says Natalie Jacobson, 4, who pets Dewey at the counter while checking out a few books.

"We kept Dewey initially because I felt the library should be less institutional," says Myron. "We wanted this to feel more homey. That's why we decorate the way we do."

In fact, it's often on a soft library couch that a Spencer child has his or her first experience with a pet -- it's Dewey. Myron says he's also amazing with disabled persons, often climbing up a wheelchair and sitting with them while they peruse new book offerings.

"He's not crazy about two- and three-year-olds, but he adores babies," Myron says. "And since we're located right across the street from the middle school, he's gotten plenty of exposure to older children. He's very good with most anyone."

At age 17 1/2, the question about Dewey's future and mortality arises. Twenty years is a long life for a cat, so Dewey is likely in one of his final chapters.

"He's an old man," says Myron, combing the bright yellow/orange fur of this former orphan kitty. "But as long as he's healthy, he'll be here. Taking him to my house (permanently) would be torture as he wants to be around people so much."

With that, Dewey hops atop the circulation desk and watches Wheeler check out a dozen books. He takes a seat and starts to purr.

Says Wheeler, "Ol' Dewey. You're pretty special."

Spencer Public Library in downtown Spencer, Iowa is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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