Approximately 18 years ago, a black cat worked its way into the Pine River Public Library. On Dec. 22, that cat, named Browser by local library patrons, died at age 19.
Until his retirement in 2018, Browser was the face of the library and a comforting companion to the many people who spent time there.
It all started when Browser first wandered into the old library building in 2002.
"Dan Corbin was the one that suggested we should keep him," said Muriel Erickson, former librarian and Browser's owner. "He said, 'I have a can of tuna we can feed him.' When he was done, he said, 'Maybe we should keep him.' And that's how he ended up at the library."
Erickson believes someone abandoned Browser nearby. She was first introduced to the feline when she was taking a break in her truck outside.
"(He) hopped right in and made himself at home," Erickson said.
The staff welcomed Browser into the library during the day, but at night he was an outside cat. The library was not set up to keep a cat at the time. Erickson believes he slept in some older vehicles stored in a neighbor's yard. Patrons immediately warmed up to him.
"When we had story time he would walk into the middle of the kids and lay down and let the kits pet him," Erickson said. "He'd sleep in the corner of the library during the day."
Of course, Browser didn't arrive at the library with a name, so they held a competition where patrons submitted name ideas and voted for their favorites.
"There was all kinds of names," Erickson said. "Midnight, Blackie and a couple of odd names too. But it ended up being Browser because he was always browsing the library. He was always sitting by the door waiting for the library to open and he'd follow the first patron in and follow them around the library."
Browser worked his way further into his position as the local library cat, and when the library moved to its current location in the former Pine River State Bank building, Erickson said the volunteers moving books made it official.
"He came in and sat on one of the top shelves and watched everyone moving everything and then the kids brought him to the new building," Erickson said. "I said, 'I guess we have to keep him now, because they moved him over.' We got everything set up and he got to stay there."
Sarah Anderson, who became an assistant at the library shortly after, remembers when she first met Browser at the new library.
"I was sitting on the floor looking at craft books and he walked up to me and scared me," Anderson said. "I wasn't expecting to see a cat in the library."
She warmed up to him like everyone else. It was easy to get permission to keep Browser in the library too, because the director at the time was a cat lover. The Pine River Library Foundation, the owners of the building, likewise approved of his presence.
At the time, the library had a column submitted regularly to the Pine River Journal called Library Lore. Erickson said around 15 years ago they put a new spin on the column by handing it over to Browser.
"Cora Mitchell was a staff member at one time and she helped him with all his writings," Erickson said. "I would give suggestions on what to write for that week or month and they would write it together. She was the voice of Browser."
Browser spent most of his years providing company and comfort to patrons. Before long, those who came in were looking for not only books, but the friendly black cat that lived at the library as well. He would sit with the patrons working on computers, putting together puzzles or reading newspapers.
"When I had school tours, everyone was looking for Browser," Erickson said. "Some people I know who were allergic to him or couldn't have a cat at home came into the library so they could have a pet there."
"My mom, Naree Weaver, said that she always loved to see Browser in the library," said patron and teacher Michelle Holden. "She followed him on Facebook and liked to see how the library patrons interacted with Browser. Every fall, for many years, fifth-grade students and teachers would get a tour of the library and the students would get their first library cards. Students would be so excited over seeing Browser in the library. Browser was always available for petting. Some students were calmed just by having Browser come near them. If you ask many students what the highlight of the library tour was, they would say, 'Browser, the cat!'"
Anderson said her favorite memories of Browser were watching him interact with people.
"It was kind of something people looked forward to seeing when they came in and were having a bad day," Anderson said. "Sometimes it was just kind of nice to sit there and relax. Kids enjoyed coming and seeing Browser."
Of course, nobody got as close to Browser as Erickson, who later brought him home at night to the house where he eventually spent his last years in retirement.
"I've always been a cat lover," Erickson said. "It was just easy to have him around. During mornings before the library opened I would talk to him and he would follow me around while I put books out."
Erickson describes Browser as the most friendly cat she has ever known. Anderson describes him as laid-back and calm and said he loved having his picture taken.
Browser had a certain amount of fame. In addition to having a newspaper column, he was featured in various lists of library cats from around the world, as well as an anthology book called "Rescued" and a documentary film called "If Cats Could Speak."
Browser is gone now, but if there's one thing that he, a library cat, leaves behind, it's stories. Those who visited the library during his tenure have a few volumes worth of those stories.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.