Beth Kramer didn’t set out to be a library director, but in a way, her peripatetic journey prepared her perfectly. Kramer studied biology and psychology as an undergraduate, with the thought of perhaps becoming an epidemiologist. After graduation she put her medical ambitions on hold and worked with some nonprofits. She recalls that in the ’80s, Massachusetts was releasing people with mental illnesses and disabilities from facilities and institutions into the community, and she worked to find housing and jobs for them.
Finding nonprofit work to her liking, Kramer got her M.B.A. in nonprofit finance from UMass Amherst. That, in turn, led to a job with Swiss Bank in New York, which Kramer found unfulfilling. After three years she left, and bounced around working at a few nonprofits, including a theater company. Since she’s always had a love of cooking, Kramer managed a couple of restaurants, which whetted her appetite for going to the Culinary Institute of America and enrolling in its pastry program.
The year was 1990, and it was then that a serendipitous trip to Martha’s Vineyard would change Kramer’s life. She came to the VIneyard for a day, staying with her brother at the Beach Plum Inn. Her brother’s friend was Doug Reid, the chef at the Beach Plum, and while there was no immediate chemistry between the two, Kramer’s brother invited her back again in two weeks, and she and Reid spent the day together riding bikes up-Island, capped by a sunset at the Gay Head Cliffs, and Kramer said, “Well, I never left.”
Kramer settled in for the summer, baking for Eden — the gardening store in Vineyard Haven was selling breads at the time — and after a few months, with the backing of Reid, she opened up her own bakery, Biga’s. She ran the bakery for three years as a wholesaler. Reid then joined Kramer, not only as a business partner as they opened up Biga’s Bakery next to the Post Office in West Tisbury, but they joined hands in marriage as well.
“We ran Biga’s for 10 years, until I got sick,” Kramer said. In 2005 Kramer was diagnosed with breast cancer. Operating the bakery and Biga’s at the same time was already more than a full-time job for two people, so Doug and Beth decided to close Biga’s and devote all their energies to Beth’s recovery.
Kramer underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and finally turned the corner on cancer after about a year. And as testament to her indomitable spirit, she even found time to get her yoga teaching degree from the Kripalu Center, so she could offer free yoga lessons for women on the Island with cancer.
As one of Kramer’s close friends, Dan Waters said, “Beth has always shown an amazing ability to turn an emergency into an opportunity.”
“And then a wonderful thing happened,” Kramer said, “I met Nelia Decker, a fellow cancer survivor who worked at the West Tisbury library. She bicycled over to my house one day, and I just liked her so much!”
When an ad appeared in the paper for a part-time worker at the library, she met with Decker about the job. “I really didn’t know anything about the library,” Kramer said. “When we ran Biga’s, we just worked and slept; I never went to the library.”
Decker took one look at Kramer, fresh from chemo and wearing a bandanna to cover her bald head, and told her that maybe she should wait a bit. But in three months the job opened up again, and Kramer, feeling much stronger and now with about three-quarters of an inch of hair on her head, reapplied. This time she was hired as a part-time circulation assistant. Kramer went on to head up the young adults department, and in 2007 when a search began for the position of director, she offered herself up for consideration.
“We already knew and loved Beth,” library trustee Dan Waters said; “she was a standout candidate, and she got the job.”
But this was no low-key job in a sleepy small-town library. Kramer would hit the ground running. West Tisbury was conducting a space needs study at the time, which included an expansion of the library. One of the first things Kramer did as director was to have a conversation with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). After the 2007 recession, library grant programs had been stalled for a couple of years, and money had been stacking up in its coffers, so the MBLC encouraged Kramer to apply for a grant. The Friends of the West Tisbury Library provided funds from their annual book sale to apply for the grant.
Drawing on her experience at Swiss Bank and working for nonprofits, Kramer plunged into the grant process. Twenty libraries applied for the funding, and the West Tisbury library was one of only eight who got the grant on the first round. The tab for expanding the library came to $6.28 million: The state would kick in $2.98 million, the town of West Tisbury paid $1.5 million, and that would leave another $1.8 million to be raised by private fundraising.
In 2010, the West Tisbury Library Foundation (WTLF) was created to run a capital campaign.
Kramer said that while no one had experience raising that kind of capital, people like Hunter Moorman, who became chair of the WTLF, and Dan Waters, a library trustee at the time, proved to be invaluable.
“And then,” Kramer said, “one day Dan was getting a haircut, and sitting next to him was David McCullough, and there’s not a stronger proponent of libraries in the world.” McCullough became honorary chairman of the foundation, and led several events, including a kickoff event at the Grange Hall. And he inspired in the rest of the foundation members a sense of confidence and a renewed sense of purpose. In 2012, the WTLF met its goal.
“Without Beth, none of this could have happened,” Waters said; “she was the best teammate anyone could have hoped for.”
But raising the money was just half the battle — now Kramer had to oversee the designing and building of the library — while still running it. And to do that, first the library had to be moved so it could continue to function while construction was going on. “We relocated to a little office suite in North Tisbury, across from Cronig’s. There wasn’t room for that many books there, so the Friends gave us money to join CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing), and that helped enormously.”
Kramer relied heavily on the community of West Tisbury for their input in designing the new library. “The people in the town are definitely not shy about telling you what they want,” Kramer said, and when the doors opened in 2014, although the library had doubled in size, the exterior remained largely the same, and when people entered the building, Kramer said, their collective reaction was “Wow.”
“The whole children’s wing in the new library was Nelia’s vision,” Kramer said. “It came from her sense of what children need, and what would be the right thing for the community to provide; I think it’s the most beautiful part of the library.”
The young adult department gives kids a safe and stimulating place to hang out after school. “Kids used to get off the bus and sit in the corner,” Kramer said. “Now they have this great space that they helped design, and the staff is trained in young adult literature.”
And the David and Rosalee McCullough Community Room has become a focal point of the town. There are concerts, art exhibits, classes, community lunches sponsored by the IGI — all manner of events for patrons of all ages. Last year, the library hosted 3,270 events, attended by 26,483 people.
“There’s no way I could have anticipated what the library has turned into,” Kramer said, “and the greatest compliment is that I think the people in the community think of it as their library.” And the people in the town are not the only ones who have taken notice. Last year, the prestigious Library Journal awarded the West Tisbury library five stars, its highest rating.
Last week was Beth Kramer’s last official day on the job, and after a national search, she turned the reins over to the library’s children’s librarian, Alexandra Pratt. “Alexandra’s going to be great; she’s got so much energy, and she already has new plans in process,” Kramer said. “She’s going to be terrific.”
“What I’ll miss most about Beth is her ability to find silver linings where no one else sees them, and build teams in ways that result in benefits no one else saw,” Dan Waters said, “but in retrospect seem inevitable and clear. That to me is her genius, and I hope that somehow, some way, she’ll continue to benefit the Island, because Beth is a treasure that will not stop giving just because she’s retiring.”