Tributes for ‘Auntie Phyllis’: The woman who inspired a generation of readers

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By Gemma Handy

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A woman whose love for literature helped inspire a generation of readers – including famed international author Jamaica Kincaid – was laid to rest on Wednesday.

Former Chief Librarian of the National Public Library Phyllis Mayers was known affectionately to many simply as ‘Auntie Phyllis’.

She died on December 15 aged 87.

Family and friends poured into the Holy Family Cathedral in St John’s to pay their final respects to Mayers, whose contributions to the nation’s literary fabric saw her bestowed with the Most Illustrious Order of Merit in 2007.

She held the library’s top post for more than 30 years before retiring in the late 1990s.

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Former Chief Librarian of the National Public Library Phyllis Mayers

Her daughter Kean Archibald told Observer her mother had studied to become a librarian in England before returning home and working her way up through the institution’s ranks.

“She would always encourage the young people to read, she would find books that they liked, she was always willing to be there for them,” Archibald said.

She recalled that people would knock on her mother’s door all times of the day and night to ask her for help finding a book for a child’s impending exam or homework, and Mayers would always oblige.

“She was very kind, very loving,” Archibald continued.

She added that her mother was also responsible for starting the Public Library summer programme which aimed to pique children’s interest in both culture and literature, along with organising regular writing and poster competitions.

She was also heavily involved in the Catholic Church, particularly its youth outreach programmes.

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Phyllis Mayers studied to be a librarian in England

Mayers was born in Dominica and came to Antigua when she was a few months’ old. She attended Antigua Girls’ High School where she was a standout in her class, receiving top honours for her work.

She grew up in Gray’s Farm, before moving to Clare Hall and later Villa. Mayers married Albert, now deceased, in 1962 with whom she had three children. Her daughter Charmaine died in 1986.

In addition to Archibald, Mayers leaves behind a son – lauded local musician Tony Mayers – along with three grandchildren.

Mayers was also a close family friend of local author and bookstore owner Barbara Arrindell who remembers ‘Aunt Phyllis’ fondly.

Arrindell said trips to the library every Saturday were “a part of my life from very early”.

“Aunt Phyllis would guide us through our reading. I remember the point in time when she was struggling to find books she thought would keep me for the week.

“She started encouraging me to read what were I guess young adult books, as opposed to books that were in the children’s section.

“I found out later that was something she would have done; she would have known her readers,” Arrindell said.

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Phyllis Mayers and family (Photos contributed)

“I honestly credit her with my love for reading … someone like her being around would have made a big difference to any of us growing up then. She was willing and dedicated to the development of young people.

“When I got into the book business, she was very pleased and her love for reading continued as long as she could read – and we shared that interest,” Arrindell added.

Mayers’ nephew Colin Hill, who read the eulogy at Wednesday’s service, said one more person who grew up frequenting the library under his aunt’s auspices was acclaimed Antiguan-born author Jamaica Kincaid.

“In one of her popular books, Jamaica Kincaid spoke of how she would steal books from the library when the librarian, Auntie Phyllis, wasn’t looking,” Hill said.

“Knowing Auntie Phyllis, she probably knew exactly what Jamaica Kincaid was doing and wanted her to have the books anyway. They remained friends for many years.”

He described his aunt as humble, selfless and the kindest person he knew, adding, “She was pure love. And I will always miss her.”

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