Anne DeGrace was about to become a 21-year-old single mother when an unexpected act of generosity set in motion nearly four decades of giving back to Nelson.
In 1981, DeGrace arrived in the city and started a used book store named Packrat Annie’s. Shortly before she was due to give birth, two women from Argenta arrived one day with an offer to run the business for free while DeGrace was on maternity leave.
DeGrace had never met the women before — they were friends of her roommate — but she agreed.
“They did that because the need was there,” says DeGrace. “I mean, it’s such a simple concept. But it was life changing for me because that was the person I wanted to be. If the need is there and you can fill it, fill it.”
DeGrace has spent her life finding and filling needs in Nelson.
She’s played a part in the creation or development of several of the city’s cultural institutions, from Kootenay Co-op Radio and the restored Civic Theatre to the annual ArtWalk and the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival. An author and illustrator with four novels and three photo books to her credit, she was also named Nelson’s cultural ambassador in 2011.
But what she’s mostly known for is a tireless devotion to the Nelson Public Library, which ended after 32 years with her retirement Thursday.
DeGrace sold Packrat Annie’s in 1984 and joined the library in 1987. Since then, she’s helped change public perceptions of what a library can be.
As adult services co-ordinator, DeGrace was responsible not only for acquiring new books, video and music but also organizing unique events.
Candi-dating, for example, provided voters one-on-one access to candidates during elections. The Human Library gave attendees the chance to have 15-minute chats with people of different lived experiences such as a disabled rights advocate or an end-of-life caregiver.
Her years of column writing, first at the Kootenay Weekly Express and Nelson Daily News then a further 219 pieces at the Star, also provided the community with a biweekly reminder that libraries can contribute to society beyond the stacks.
DeGrace’s recent subjects included championing LGTBQ authors, talking up the benefits of social infrastructure, challenging readers to consider libraries as safe spaces, casting a critical eye on Canada Reads, and asking other librarians how they were accommodating wildfire evacuees, while also cheering on services provided by co-workers such as Melodie Rae Storey’s potlucks for Nelson newbies.
“People still think of libraries as warehouses full of books, and they’re not,” says DeGrace. “I’ve really worked hard at that narrative.”
Chief librarian Tracey Therrien says DeGrace made an impact in less public ways as well.
“I would overhear her at the circulation desk,” says Therrien. “People would come in to check a book out and they’d go, ‘You’re Anne DeGrace aren’t you? I’m trying to write a book.’
“She would listen, which is really important, and either set up a meeting at another time or give them information right there and then.”
DeGrace is quick in conversation to deflect credit. The library is run by a team, which she feels privileged to have been part of. But she also has a habit of inspiring those fortunate enough to be caught in her orbit.
Jocelyn Carver moved to Nelson in 1997 and met DeGrace as part of early efforts to begin what would end up being Kootenay Co-op Radio.
“I owe her the community that I now love,” says Carver.
“It was because there was this community member who, beyond the volunteering, was like, ‘What do you need? Do you have a place to stay? Are you working somewhere? Oh you don’t drive, I’m going to give you driving lessons.’”
Those lessons, both of volunteerism and automotive, stuck.
Carver is now executive director of Kootenay Career Development Society as well as Columbia Basin Trust’s board chair, and went on to collaborate with DeGrace on the popular local cookbook Seasonings.
“She completely set a standard for what it is to pay it forward in a community that changed my life and how I perceive how I contribute to a community,” says Carver.
If this all seems calculated, like DeGrace is constantly playing matchmaker between the library, people, organizations and ideas, the reality she says is “a little more ad hoc.”
“My approach to functioning in the world is a little messier than that, but in a good way. It’s a bit of creative chaos maybe in my own life and career and the way it’s unfolded, and also just in the way I think. The ideas are generally creative, it’s just a little chaotic in how it’s planned.”
What’s she’s planning for now is her next chapter.
DeGrace, who just turned 60, is looking forward to her grandchild’s birth in March. She’s started Ceriph Press, which she hopes will publish a book a year, and also has the fifth novel of her career to finish in addition to toying with the idea of writing and illustrating a graphic novel.
She’s retired from the library, she says, but not from a life of words, books and giving back in ways big and small.
“I think in the library, in my job, in almost anything, if you generally try to err on the side of generosity, you’re going to be OK,” she says.
“That’s what I want to do, is always try to be generous in the way I move through my job, I move through the world and it just encourages more generosity. It’s not even give and take. It’s give and give and give.”