Library programs lets literature lovers share books, friendship

Shirley Rainwater, her dog, Lulu, and Tom Johnston have become good friends since Johnston began bringing Rainwater books from the Lexington Public Library.
Shirley Rainwater, her dog, Lulu, and Tom Johnston have become good friends since Johnston began bringing Rainwater books from the Lexington Public Library. By Mary Meehan

After they met as Book Buddies, Tom Johnston and Shirley Rainwater became fast friends.

"On the first day, we spent about a half an hour talking and visiting," Johnston said, sitting in Rainwater's cozy living room on a blustery morning in Lexington.

Sure, Johnston and Rainwater share a love of books. But they talk about family and friends and dogs. Lulu, Rainwater's constant companion, turns into a tail-wagging love machine at the sight of Johnston, who responds with an affectionate scratch behind Lulu's ears.

"Every time I visit, I find out we have more in common," he said. "I just love Shirley. I love coming to visit her. We know everything about each other."

The two met through the Lexington Public Library's program that matches homebound adults with volunteers who bring them reading material from the library. There are about 115 Book Buddies volunteers serving 105 patrons, but there is always a need for more help, program coordinator Annette Mayer said.

Volunteers don't read to the patrons. They pick up and deliver books or books on tape. They also sometimes make recommendations on what to read.

Rainwater and Johnston get together a couple of times a month. It varies depending on how quickly Rainwater finishes the books on tape that Johnston brings. "She's a fast listener," he said.

The program has been a lifeline for Rainwater, an active and outgoing retired nurse who has been an avid reader all her life. She was devastated when macular degeneration started to weaken her eyesight, making reading a challenge, she said.

"I could read everything since I was 6 years old, and now I can't read anything," said Rainwater, 76, who was referred to the Book Buddies program by a friend.

The onset of the disease was quick. "When it started going bad, it went bad fast," she said.

A visiting nurse for many years, Rainwater said she had no qualms about inviting a stranger into her home as part of the Book Buddies program. But, she said, like Johnston, she didn't expect to find a pal.

Rainwater makes requests to Johnston, who searches the library stacks for books on tape. He tries to find titles she might enjoy, and she occasionally passes along some of his favorites. Most recently, the retired chef and actor suggested Following Atticus: 48 High Peaks, One Little Dog and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan.

The true story about a mountain-climbing schnauzer led to a conversation about the relative health of both of their dogs, with the chat eventually meandering back to what other books Rainwater might enjoy.

Johnston said he would like more Book Buddies to work with. Aside from taking classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Center at the University of Kentucky, Book Buddies is one of the primary ways he spends his time now that he is retired.

That would be OK with Rainwater, too, as long as Johnston keeps her titles coming.

"I go a little crazy when I don't have a book," she said.