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Loss of library after fire brings Mexia community together in unexpected ways

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Posted at 1:46 PM, Mar 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 11:23:29-04

MEXIA, TX — As we saw in the Texas deep freeze a few weeks ago, the loss of an important service can have devastating effects, especially if you live outside one of the major cities in Central Texas.

People in Mexia learned about that loss early one morning when investigators say an arsonist torched the city library.

The sense of loss the city felt prompted them to pull together to recover, and its people learned a lot along the way.

Seven year old Jasmine Escamilla talks about the Mexia library the way some children talk about Disney World.

"Sometimes my mom brings books of Pete the cat or somebody else," she explained.

Pete the Cat and other characters come alive for this first grader and other children in Mexia.

”When we have books...we return them and then we get some new ones,” she said.

Jasmine's mother makes sure she gets to the library often.

”Yeah, she loves the new place. She likes the books, also in here,” said Hortensia Escamilla.

It's "new" because investigators say an arsonist tried to take this world, this little escape, away from this town about a year-and-a-half ago.

City Manager Eric Garretty remembers it as if it happened yesterday.

”Four in the morning sound asleep and the cell phone rings and its the fire chief, and he says the library is on fire. As a city manager, that's a phone call you don't want to get,” he explained.

How does a library catch fire? Who would want to burn down a library?

Those questions made this loss a hard one to take.

”One of the images that always stays with me," Garretty said choking up. "The librarian, sitting on a beach outside on a bench with her head down, saying 'what are we going to do?'"

A library in a community the size of Mexia is critical.

There's no doubt that there were a lot of tears shed that night.

”It just broke my heart. There's nothing I could do. I wanted to get in here and help. I wanted to save what I could save," said Shien-Dee Pullman, Mexia Library Director, and the librarian crying on this bench that night.

"Fire is definitely not good for books, fire was gone, but then all the water. Water is not good for books either,” she said.

The burned books smoldered for days.

The senseless destruction of a library was like a dagger to the heart of a city like Mexia.

But today, we see the resilience of a community that came together in remarkable ways.

The Gibbs Memorial Library is now a shining example of that heart and spirit.

A joint meeting of the Mexia City Council and Library Board designated the Gibbs Memorial Library Fire a public calamity.

”We opened up in a small office at City Hall, and people were even then can we give you donations, it is giving me goosebumps just talking about it,” said Pullman.

Two Mexia businessmen donated the use of a downtown building, kick-starting the recovery.

”This library staff and the community, literally within about a month. We had shelves up we had books, we had a temporary library. This fire was not going to stop any of them from serving our community,” said Garretty.

People, businesses and other libraries from around Texas and around the country came to the rescue.

”On their own dime they mailed us books, and it gives you a wonderful feeling that the library group as a whole is, it's like family,” Pullman recalled.

The city put library repairs on a fast-track, and about nine months later...

”We got the keys to the facility in July of 2020. We had a big grand reopening on November 4. Ever since then, the library has been up and running,” said Garretty.

It was neighbors helping neighbors.

With the crisis firmly in the past, people here can even find a little humor in what they've been through, in a running joke with librarians.

”Oh, do you have any new books? We have all new books,” said Pullman with a wry smile.

They have all new books, all new computers, all new multimedia for families who depend on this media center.

”Residents we serve cover the entire socio-economic spectrum. The library is absolutely critical,” said Garretty.

It's critical to folks like little Jasmine's family, and others.

”Technology is important for the kids and parents," said Excamilla.

It's especially important in these days of social distancing and remote learning.

”I got to do school on my house. There's no Wi-Fi in my house so we come here to do school, things...I like the library,” said little Jasmine.

As they've does the rest of Mexia.