Sally Portman retires after 34 years as Winthrop’s librarian
For more than a generation, Sally Portman has been the face of the Winthrop Library, making book recommendations, running Story Hour, connecting book club members with their assigned reading, scheduling guest speakers, and helping library patrons find the answers to life’s persistent questions.
When she retired at the end of March, it was with the satisfaction of more than three decades of providing valley residents access to information and the pursuit of literary pleasures.
Considering how integral to valley life Sally and Don Portman are, it’s hard to believe that they moved here by chance. High school sweethearts, the Portmans taught in Seattle in the 1970s before seeking a more rural lifestyle.
“Seattle got too crowded,” Portman says. “We wanted to go back to the land like all the other hippies. Leavenworth was too expensive, so we looked at all these places in Okanogan County and happened upon the Methow.”
For their first home, on 20 acres near Poorman Creek (which they bought for $350/acre — a price some of their friends deemed “a total rip-off”), the Portmans took apart an old weathered homestead on the property and removed the nails from the boards. “Someone stole half the boards,” Portman says, “but we managed to build a tiny cabin with what they left us.”
Don Portman had been hired to start Sun Mountain Lodge’s Nordic ski program, while Sally Portman taught skiing in the winter and marked trees for the U.S. Forest Service in the summer.
“It was a rough and tumble group,” Portman recalls of the other tree markers. “It was the first summer they allowed women to mark trees and the guys did not like having us in the program,” she says, referring to herself and the other female tree marker: the Methow Valley’s other iconic librarian, Terry Dixon, for many years the Twisp librarian.
Portman became the Winthrop librarian in the spring of 1986, besting 16 other applicants to get the job. “I think it was my enthusiasm that won the day,” Portman says, adding “it certainly wasn’t my credentials.”
Portman had been in charge of the kids’ program at Sun Mountain Lodge, she had a passion for books, she loved all kinds of media, and she’s just enough of an extrovert to balance the librarian’s role as a custodian of materials and a resource for information with the library’s function in a community as an ad hoc social outlet.
“We are not a shushing library,” says Portman, referring to the Winthrop library’s lively environment. “Except for loud political discussions,” she adds. “People have to take those outside.”
Portman’s first library was housed in downtown Winthrop, between the public bathrooms and the town hall. It was tiny, Portman says, and there were books stacked everywhere. “It was so much fun,” she says. “I never thought about how long I’d stay in the job. I just knew that this job was made for me and I was so lucky to get it.”
Portman established a library programming series in those early years — one that has endured to this day. “We had such a tiny space,” she says, “but we’d get community members to offer programs on radon, on nature or wildlife, or share slides of their travels. We’d pack the place.” Sometimes, Portman notes, such talks had to be scheduled for two different showings, as the number of interested attendees far exceeded the library’s carrying capacity.
In her nearly 34 years as Winthrop’s librarian, Portman moved the library from downtown to a vacant classroom in Little Star Montessori School, then to its current location across from the ballfield. Her libraries have always been small, but their use is robust.
“We have big readers in the Methow Valley,” says Portman. “People love our materials.”
Over the years, Portman has seen changes in the types of materials the library carries as well as the way the library administers circulation. “I used to check books out by hand,” says Portman, “and we all had to hand-write and mail our own overdue notices.”
Portman notes that CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, e-books and internet services are all relatively new additions to libraries. “Our library system used to say, ‘We’ll never carry CDs, we’ll never carry movies,’ but now those are some of our most popular items,” she says. “There are so many more kinds of materials and so many more books in general now. We’re able to offer so much more to patrons than we could 20 or 30 years ago.”
Despite a once-fashionable fear that the internet would kill interest in print media, Portman says that “real books are still beloved. People still want to read real books, and our circulation numbers support that.”
Also an author
Some of the real books on the shelves were written by Portman herself, such as “Ski Touring Methow Style,” “The Wildflowers of Sun Mountain,” “The Birds of Sun Mountain and the Methow Valley,” and “The Smiling Country: A History of the Methow Valley,” which was published in 1993 and is reported to be the first comprehensive history of the valley.
Commissioned by Sun Mountain Lodge founders Helga and Erivan Haub, “The Smiling Country” was “so much fun to write,” says Portman. “All this history was just in bits and pieces. I got to pull it together by researching and interviewing.” The Haubs were devoted environmentalists, Portman continues. “Helga wanted to keep the land of this valley intact for the future. She wrote the preface to the book and arranged for a portion of the book sales to be dedicated to environmental protection.”
Portman says that retirement kind of snuck up on her. “I love this job and I love the patrons,” she says. “As the librarian, you can make everybody happy. You can’t imagine how gratifying it is to be a part of something that only does good for people. Thirty-four years just flew by. And then all of a sudden it was time to retire.”
Retirement for Portman and her husband might look a bit different than for some. For the Portmans, retirement appears be less about slowing down and more about speeding up, now that they will finally have time to take some of the trips on their unsurprisingly long bucket list.
“Let’s see,” says Portman, “we want to bike a bunch of rail trails [railroad grades converted to bike trails]. There’s the Katy Trail in Missouri, there are wonderful covered bridges trails. We want to hike in England. And then there are family reunions — the kind of gatherings we’ve missed out on because we were always working.”
Portman had intended to work right up through her official final date of employment on March 31, but the coronavirus crisis necessitated system-wide library closures and Gov. Inslee’s March 23 “stay at home” order put a halt to these plans. A retirement bash planned by Friends of the Winthrop Library (FOWL) has been postponed indefinitely, but FOWL encourages patrons to send notes of appreciation to Portman care of Friends of the Winthrop Public Library, PO Box 592, Winthrop, WA 98862.
Wanted to say goodbye
Portman says she doesn’t mind the party’s postponement but wishes she had had a chance to thank all her patrons. “I don’t find it anticlimactic,” she says, “but my patrons, we’re like a family. I wanted to say goodbye. I care about every patron. If somebody is always here on Tuesdays and then one day they’re not here, I worry about them. When I see some books I think of certain people, and try to remember to recommend the books to them. I don’t mind not having a party, but I want people to know how much they mean to me. The wonderful subs and volunteers — I couldn’t have done this work without them; they gave so freely of their time. The patrons — they’re the best in the world. This job has been an absolute joy. I feel honored and appreciated, and I know the next librarian will feel the same.”
North Central Regional Library (NCRL) Executive Director Barbara Walters acknowledges the welcoming atmosphere Portman has cultivated in the Winthrop Library, saying “Sally treats everyone who walks through the doors of the library like family.” Walters also notes that nothing seems to slow Portman down. “Flood, fire, or 100 people showing up for a program in a 900-square-foot space — she makes it work. That’s how much she loves being a librarian and serving the town of Winthrop. She is a powerhouse and leaves incredibly large shoes to fill.”
Temporarily, Portman’s empty shoes will be filled by many feet. In April, the NCRL bookmobile staff member will relocate to the Winthrop Library and continue serving patrons remotely. After that, local subs will fill in. Eventually, a new librarian will be hired to carry on Portman’s legacy and establish their own.
Portman, however, knows that the library will always have a special place in her heart. For starters, she’ll be one of its frequent patrons, since she will (in theory) have more time for pleasure reading in retirement. And Portman hopes to sub or volunteer at the new library, championed by FOWL and slated for completion in spring 2022. “I definitely want to work in the new place!” she says.
In her parting gesture as the Winthrop librarian, Portman leaves a few book recommendations: “The Boys in the Boat,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “All the Light We Cannot See.” She thinks for a moment, then bursts out, “There are just so many good books — an endless supply. That’s the great thing about the library.”