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Bench of stone books honors devoted Hockessin library volunteer

Betsy PriceCulture, Headlines


The Hockessin Library’s new bench, made of books carved from limestone, took inspiration from the building’s cantilevered entrance.

A new limestone bench mimicking stacks of books at Hockessin Library was created as a memorial to a longtime volunteer and board member.

The bench honors Barbara A. Roberts Miller, who died in March 2018 after a short illness.  The titles of the books on the bench were all favorite of hers and include children’s books, popular literature, the history of Hockessin and gardening.

The Board of the Friends of the Library began casting around in 2018 for a project to honor her Miller, said board member Crystal Langstaff.

“We decided that a fabulous permanent bench right at the main entrance would be a lovely, lovely way to memorialize her,” Langstaff, said. The bench also was to be a nod to how much she loved reading and being outdoors.

a person posing for the camera

Barbara A. Roberts Miller

An existing bench was old and rusting. When the board debated what material the memorial bench should be made out of, Langstaff suggested stone. She felt like it would be long-lasting and a nod to the enduring and ancient importance of libraries.

Langstaff, who has an art and architecture background, began researching sculptors and found Cary Shafer of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She liked what she saw online.

Shafer remembers her calling on a snowy winter day. He was intrigued and agreed.

“I have a long career making site-specific sculpture, a lot of useful, usable pieces,” Shafer said.

Because of COVID, Shafer wasn’t able to visit Hockessin, so he studied photos of the building and property that Langstaff sent him.

“As a sculptor, I’m very interested in the shape and forms of things and also where they live,” Shafer said. “The sculpture was going to be right there in front of the library, so it was important for me to look at the library itself. And I especially liked the cantilevered section out over the space I wanted to design something that picked up that cantilevered shape and also mimicked the architectural style of the building.

“But I also wanted it to be books, and I didn’t want to make it look like any other book bench you’d ever seen.”

He creates his models first on a computer, using measurements from the site on which it will sit.

a man looking at the camera

Cary Shafer

Once Shafer got the design down, he carved it over a period of months, exactly like you might think he would: With a hammer and chisel.

“It’s just what you’d imagine,” he said. “There’s, you know, a crazy old dude with the wild hair and dust on his face and he’s banging away at the rock and it’s making a lot of noise.”

It’s the same way he helped carve stone for four years at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. while training with Italian master-carver Vincent Palumbo.

He had been in his 20s living in New York City when his father asked him to come home and help run the family story in the Midwest. Shafer agreed to try it for a year. He hated it.

One day he went out back, put a chunk of limestone on the ground, and out of boredom began beating on it with a hammer and screwdriver.

“Something, like, snapped in my head,” he said. “I quit the business within a month and a year later, I was at the National Cathedral carving angels. Nobody was more surprised than me.”

The Indiana limestone he used for the bench was created by years of pressure from deposits of marine fossils that decomposed in the shallow areas of the Midwest. The largest book, “The Complete Works of Beatrice Potter,” weighed 345 pounds. The entire bench weighs 1,500.

Shafer said he has a gantry in his shop with a hoist and can move up to 4,000 pounds around by himself when he’s working.

a group of people posing for the camera

American sculptor Cary Shafer, in the plaid shirt, with members of the New Castle County Public Works Department who helped install the memorial bench.

He finished the Hockessin bench 18 months, and it sat created up in his studio waiting to be delivered.

It was installed Nov. 4, with the help of seven members of the New Castle County Public Works Department.

The project was paid for with proceeds from the library’s book sales, but Langstaff declined to say how much it cost.

A nearby plaque expresses the appreciation of New Castle County to the Friends of the library for the gift of the bench honoring Miller.

Shafer was pleased with the results.

“I really liked that it had a rhythm and kind of danced and it was playful, and it was going to be kids who are hopefully attracted to sit on it,” he said.

“People who had the most sophisticated eye could look at it and see what I’m trying to tell them about how it fits into the building with the cantilevered business. And others could just look at it and go, ‘Oh, look. There’s a bunch of books stacked up. Isn’t that fun?’”

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