“Libraries are the last place in every town and city that people can simply exist. Every building one enters today comes with some expectation of spending money. … Even a free restroom is becoming difficult to find.”

Marchant tyrell
Editor / Progressive Cattle

That’s how writer Linda Stack-Nelson described public libraries in an article written for World Literature Today in 2018 but which I only recently came across. As I read Ms. Stack’s article, I couldn’t help but ponder on whether she’s right. Are libraries truly the last place the public can just show up without the expectation of shelling out at least a few of their hard-earned dollars?

I ultimately decided she was mostly right, but not completely. For example: Have you been to a sale barn recently? Sure, the purpose of hosting a weekly auction is ostensibly to buy and sell livestock. But we all know that a good portion of the folks making themselves comfortable in those worn-out bleachers showed up with no intention of letting go of a single penny. They show up for the free coffee, the gossip and the auctioneer’s hypnotic chant. They shake hands, laugh at bad jokes and wonder aloud what kind of bull got into Garth’s baldy heifers to produce such a sorry-looking pen of speckled, long-legged, rough-haired five-weights. And every one of them is welcome to do just that, even if they don’t raise their hand for a single bid.

While the building and pens and parking lot are indeed a place of commerce, they make up, to steal a phrase from sociologist and author Eric Klinenberg, a vital section of cow country’s “social infrastructure.” So do the small-town church houses and spring brandings and random spots in the middle of gravel roads where guys in $800 beaver hide hats and free ballcaps park their pickups to shoot the breeze for 20 minutes until another car appears in the rearview and forces them to move. It doesn’t cost a dime to be in these places, but it’s where some of the industry’s most important business goes down.

These free spaces are where you figure out how to deal with bird flu and scours, deer hunters and coyotes, grazing permits and yet another month of not enough rain. They’re the best place to lament the price of diesel or to bemoan the latest world-saving program the bureaucrats and politicians in D.C. have cooked up. They’re where you go to quench your curiosity about how calves out of those Akaushi bulls grow in the feedlot or whether Catahoulas are worthy of the hype. They’re an ideal forum to debate whether your neighbor Tom’s boy will be ready to be the starting quarterback this fall, or to check in on your other neighbor Matt, whose dad just had a heart attack the same day his daughter tore an ACL sliding into third.


Here’s to all the free spaces, the invaluable pieces of cow country’s social infrastructure that keep the whole thing duct-taped together. Maybe, if it’s a slow day, you’ll find a place to discuss the fine column that goofy-looking editor wrote in the latest issue of your favorite magazine.