In 1986, after enrolling in secondary schools and dropping out and trying to be an artist in Paris, Poppy Johnson landed a part-time job at the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport.
Her years of searching for a path she could be happy on had taken her from Greenwich Village, where she grew up, to Barnard College, where she dropped out, to passage to Europe on a Norwegian freighter so she could try to be an artist in Paris, then back to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she also dropped out.
“I was a serial dropper outer,” she said. “When I moved to Paris all by myself I thought it would be for the rest of my life. Basically, I was running away from home.”
On Friday, Ms. Johnson reported to the library, where she has been the assistant director, for her last day. Throughout the morning library patrons filed to her desk, one after the other, to say goodbye and wish her well in retirement.
“I am not going far,” she said, adding that she lives in the village and will always be a patron of the library she has worked in for the past 35 years.
The library’s director, Tom Vitale, who took over the job last fall when Lisa Richland retired, said he quickly realized how indispensable Ms. Johnson was to both the library but also the communities of Orient, East Marion and Greenport it serves.
“She has been a wonderful asset to the community, with so many great ideas,” Mr. Vitale said. “Our patrons came to rely on her and to trust her.”
Ms. Richland retired as the library director last November after 31 years. Her commute to the job involved taking the ferry from her home on Shelter Island to Greenport.
“Poppy was wonderful, she was the inspiration person on the staff,” Ms. Richland said. “She had great ideas. She was happy to entertain ideas. We ran a quirky library, but perfect for Greenport. I am proud of what we did. It was a blue-haired lady kind of place when we both started out and it became a community center and a force in the community. Poppy was filled with great ideas. We were the head of the pack.”
Brian Mealy, the library clerk at Floyd Memorial, praised Ms. Johnson “for always trying to make a space for local artists. She had exhibits and she is an artist herself. Local artists found a home in the library.
“She also made a home for local poets,” he added. “For years they met at the library, 25 local poets who didn’t have a place before Poppy invited them. She spearheaded many things. She is a jack of all trades.”
In speaking of how she arrived in Greenport to begin her long career at the library, Ms. Johnson spoke about growing up in Greenwich Village. While her first name is Priscilla, she was called Poppy from childhood. Her father was an editor at “Chemical Week” magazine; her mother worked in public relations.
Nothing she did after graduating from high school quite fit the bill — first it was Barnard College, then off to Paris, then back again only to drop out at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“I didn’t like that school,” she said. “It was very provincial and small minded. I wanted to get on with my life.”
Along with her husband and three children, Ms. Johnson moved to Greenport and into a building that had once been a laundry. As they remodeled the building, she took a part-time job as a circulation clerk at the library.
Soon, however, the children’s librarian quit and she was asked to fill that job. She organized reading programs for children and other programs and, liking her new work, decided to go to library school and get her credentials. She did – and this time didn’t drop out.
She has held several jobs – from children’s librarian to reference librarian, adult services librarian and assistant library director.
“I’ve been the assistant director the last 10 years,” she said. “I never wanted to be the director because that person has to do a lot of financial stuff and have meetings with the board, along with firing and hiring. All things I don’t want to do.”
A tradition she loved was the Christmas time reading of Truman Capote’s short story, “A Christmas Memory.”
“People would come every year to hear it read and loved it,” she said. “One of the things I realized early on was how valuable a library is to a community as a place to gather.”
She said it is that connection to the community that she will miss the most.
“People would come in and tell me what they were interested in,” she said. “I’d say, ‘let’s do this, let’s do that.’ I had a good career. I was dragged kicking and screaming out here. I didn’t think I could live anywhere but Manhattan. But it’s been great.”
“I really want to get back into the studio and do art and show art,” she said. “Now I will have time. But I will be part of something.”