POPHAM BEACH — Many know Popham Beach as a state park.

But drive down Route 209, past the long line of cars waiting to enter one of the busiest stretches of sand in Maine and around a bend, to reach the village of Popham Beach. It’s decidedly quieter, though on busy beach days even the village’s parking lots fill up by 11 a.m. 

Once in town, there is the Popham Beach Library, a cool, calm respite. Built in 1910, it’s among the oldest structures in the village. The warm wood paneling and a grand stone fireplace of the front room, lined with shelves of books organized by genre, are reminiscent of a cabin in the woods, but a view of Atkins Bay is a reminder otherwise. Light streams into the children’s room in the back, added in 1998, where colorful buckets of picture books surround a colorful rug, toys and chairs. There is one desktop computer. 

The seasonal library keeps up with the ebbs and flows of summer residents and beach goers — opening Memorial Day weekend — offering books, DVDs, local history lessons and summer programs until the last weekend in September. Like a summer resident itself, the Popham Beach Library is loyal, returning each year with no plans to stop.

Since its inception, the library has been a community-led effort. The land was donated by village residents, and it was built by local carpenters and stone masons. Even the stones in the fireplace came from Stage Island, across the Kennebec River. 

Today, the library is operated by the Popham Beach Improvement Association, independent of the town. All of its librarians and staff are volunteers, many of whom loved going to the library as longtime summer or full-time residents of Popham Beach. Two co-librarians — Janet Gilnack and Barbara Keltonic — lead the other volunteers, about 20 in all.

Gilnack began as co-librarian nine years ago, when, she said, her only qualification was having a library card. Back then, the library was only open in the busiest months of July and August. She noticed, however, that people were knocking on the door in June and September, when she was preparing the library, wanting to come in. 

“I opened up the door: ‘Sure, I’d be glad to show it to you,’” said Gilnack. “There are people who just come up at that time of the year, because it’s quieter, and they’d been coming for 30 years and they never got into the library. So I thought, well that’s a good reason to open it up in June and September.”

Eclectic offerings
The library is proudly non-conforming. It has its own ordering system — no Dewey Decimal numbers here. It doesn’t have a website or even a landline for the library itself, though volunteers did just recently start a Facebook page. And in a way very predictable of a beach community, it’s only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the peak season months.

But it makes sense: It’s a library by the beach. Staff have embraced the fact that people likely won’t want to spend hours in the library or read the serious stuff on vacation, said Keltonic, who is in her first season as co-librarian.

“For instance, we have the new Stephen King, and it’s about two inches thick, and I don’t know that anyone’s taken it out yet because you’re not going to finish that in a week, and not when you’re at the beach,” Keltonic said with a laugh.

They have tubs of free books, donated by community members, available to take. There’s a Little Free Library out front, where people, without having to even enter the library, can find a book.

“The idea is to get people reading. You don’t actually have to come into the building,” Gilnack said. “They just come in or stop by and take a book on their way to the beach, and they put it back as they’re coming back from the beach.”

The library is also a resource for people interested in the village’s history. In 1607, Popham Colony was the first attempted European colony in the Northeast. In the mid-19th century, Popham Beach thrived as an important ship-building site on the mouth of the Kennebec River, and construction of Fort Popham began in 1861 but was never finished. Fort Baldwin was built in 1905 and was used during both world wars. 

In the 20th century, Popham Beach became a bustling beach community, welcoming hundreds of visitors, many coming on steamboats from Boston or Bath. The history of Popham Beach is preserved in the library’s books, but also in the library itself, as one of those original historic structures.

“Half the conversations in the library are about the books and reading, and the other half seem to be about our incredible history here,” said Keltonic. “I think that’s quite a service that we offer.”

“They want the flavor of Popham Beach, a little seaside village, and I think we do a lot to support that,” agreed Gilnack.

Part of the “flavor” of Popham Beach are the events put on by the library, which range from poetry readings by a local Emily Dickinson expert, to presentations about indigenous plants, to the annual Fort Popham Concert and Popham’s Flare Night, which marks the anniversary of the Popham colonists’ arrival.

Creating connections
Because the community is so small, Keltonic often sees people that she helped to pick out a book at one of these events. As a librarian, she loves to create that connection. It makes the work more personal, she said.

“This year, it feels like I’ve fixed up so many people with books, and then I see them at one of our other social events,” Keltonic said. “I look at them and I know what they’re reading … So it’s almost like having a book club.”

Do they fear that, with the ever-increasing role of technology, fewer people will want to come to the library to check out books? Not really. The stakes are pretty low, admits Keltonic, but people seem to still be into a beach library that doubles as a repository for local history. 

“Should the day come that nobody’s coming there,” Keltonic said, “I guess they’d close it, but that’s not going to happen.”

It’s their niche, and they’re sticking to it.

The Popham Beach Library is located at 956 Popham Road in Phippsburg. For more information about the library and events, see the Popham Beach Library Facebook page.