Earlier this year, my mom’s book club read Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, and in an email, the Swedish author shared some information on how she managed to write about small-town Iowa despite the fact that she’d never even visited the U.S. “I chose Iowa because the only thing I knew about the state was that they had a lot of corn, and that they had a world-famous library cat named Dewey Readmore Books,” she said in an email. “If you haven’t read the book about Dewey, I heartily recommend it!”
I had heard of Dewey—he was pretty famous for a cat, after all—but I guess I assumed that the book would be 300 pages of cute-animal anecdotes. However, the Wikipedia article on Dewey stated that it “told the story of Dewey’s life at the library, interspersed with the difficulties faced by the town and [Vicki] Myron in her personal life,” which made it sound like it would be more interesting than I’d originally thought.
Librarian Myron, who discovered Dewey as a kitten in the book drop box one brutally cold morning, gives a lot of background about the town of Spencer, Iowa, a community hit hard by the financial crisis of the 1980s, in which half the farms in the area went into foreclosure. Then Land O’Lakes, one of the town’s biggest employers, closed its plant. “In 1979, there wasn’t a vacant storefront in town for Santa to set up shop in. In 1985, there were twenty-five empty storefronts… There was a running joke: the last store owner out of downtown Spencer, please turn off the lights.”
Then Dewey arrived, and his story “resonated with the people of Spencer. We identified with it. Hadn’t we all been shoved down the library drop box by the banks? By outside economic forces? By the rest of America, which ate our food but didn’t care about the people who grew it? Here was an alley cat, left for dead in a freezing drop box, terrified, alone, and clinging to life. He made it through that dark night, and that terrible event turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.”
Dewey took up residence in the library, where he charmed almost everyone in town (Myron makes it clear that there were a few anti-feline cranks and curmudgeons, including several on the city council). Dewey was not shy; he loved people, and posed happily for photos, which undoubtedly helped spread his fame. In 1990, a profile in the national magazine Country exposed millions of readers to the handsome feline. Eventually, a film crew from Japan flew to Iowa to shoot footage for a documentary, and visitors from far and wide started stopping by the library in order to meet Dewey.
Hundreds of people believed that they had a special relationship with the cat, but Myron is the one who took him home when the library was closed for Christmas, brought him to the vet, and gave him occasional baths (which he hated). Myron suffered from serious health issues and was also raising her daughter as a single mom after divorcing her alcoholic husband, so she grew to rely on Dewey for comfort and solace, as well as moments of laughter and fun.
The author’s task is to make the case that Dewey truly was a special cat, and I think she does the job. “Dewey had that personality: enthusiastic, honest, charming, radiant, humble (for a cat), and above all, a friend to anyone and everyone. It wasn’t just beauty. It wasn’t just a great story. Dewey had charisma, like Elvis or any of the other people who will live in our minds forever. There are dozens of library cats in the United States, but none came close to accomplishing what Dewey accomplished. He wasn’t just another cat for people to pet and smile about. Every regular user of the library, every single one, felt they had a unique relationship with Dewey. He made everyone feel special.”
Dewey lived to a ripe old 19 years of age, and his obituary ran in over 270 newspapers. He died in 2006, and I would imagine that if he were around today, he’d have his own Instagram account and Facebook fan page. It’s easier for an animal to become famous now; a tabby named Nala Cat has over four million Instagram followers, as well as her own brand of cat food and lucrative sponsorship deals. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Dewey could have become such a celebrity that his fame would have interfered with the day-to-day operations of the library.
But while Dewey was an international icon, he was first and foremost a part of his local community, there to provide smiles and companionship to the library patrons of Spencer, Iowa. Thanks to Myron’s open-hearted and moving account of his life, his memory will live on.