“She was sitting right here on her laptop doing her homework,’’ library director Ann Wirtanen said, employing the soft voice of librarians everywhere. “And he was right behind her.’’
This town’s public library reopened for business Tuesday afternoon, three days after a 23-year-old man named Jeffrey Yao — who months ago told police about the voices inside his head — allegedly carried a 10-inch knife and slashed to death a young woman, the medical student at her laptop, 22-year-old Deane Kenny Stryker.
“There was a young man who took a chair and pinned him to the wall,’’ Wirtanen told me as sunlight slanted through those colorful glass windows in the library reading room. “That’s what I saw on the footage. People volunteered. They stepped up to the situation. You’re blown away by it.
“You’re sitting there reading in that beautiful place with these Tiffany windows and all of a sudden this crime happens right in front of you.’’
Wirtanen, a Cleveland native and a former math teacher, has no manual to consult, no book to pull from the shelves of her library’s stacks to instruct her about how to console a staff, or reassure her patrons, or precisely how to proceed after the startling phone call she got at her home just after 10:30 on Saturday morning.
She is a librarian, and words matter to her. She’ll never forget these: “I got a call from our children’s librarian whose exact words were: ‘Ann, something very, very, very, very bad has just happened.’ ’’
Yes something very bad has happened. Again.
Bloodshed in classrooms. Bloodshed in movie theaters, bloodshed in nightclubs. Bloodshed in churches.
And now a young woman repeatedly assaulted and killed with a knife just feet from the books of Dennis Lehane and Richard Russo, just a room away from 16 public computer terminals always in great demand, just up the stairs from the children’s room where a sign reads: “Pajama Drop-off Location.’’
“This is supposed to be a quiet, respectful place where people can have quiet time, and peace, and advance their knowledge,’’ Dana Farrell, a 66-year-old retiree and a 20-year Winchester resident, told me as we sat on a bench outside the library. “That’s what this young woman was doing. She was studying, and this kind of thing happens. Could have been me. Could have been anybody.
“It’s just another one of these things that’s going on now in life where we all get very confused, very frustrated about what’s going on. And this is a very nice library.’’
Yes, it is. It’s an architectural jewel actually, a communal building of rough exterior granite, dark mortar, and limestone trim below a slate roof.
Jon French, a library trustee, knows every inch of the place. His architectural firm was hired in the mid-1990s to restore the library — a project that enjoyed vast municipal support. The slate roof was repaired, the children’s room was expanded, the building was wired for Internet access, and a new addition’s granite was blended to match the original.
“We just tried to make the addition look like the old building and give it the same warmth and charm,’’ French said. “We wanted to make it a welcoming place, which is the tragedy of the whole thing.’’
French, whose father was in the Air Force and spent his childhood in Hawaii, said he and his wife were attracted to Winchester’s small-town charm when they moved here in 1984 to raise two children.
“Everybody just assumes that it’s a safe place to be. I hope that doesn’t change,’’ said French, who heard of the attack over the weekend from a Globe reporter who reached him by phone on the West Coast, where he had traveled for a business trip. “But you worry about that. There is this fear that something could happen that’s unpredictable.’’
Around the corner from the library, Judy Manzo said that fear is palpable. For the past 26 years, she has owned Book Ends, a wonderful bookstore, where on Tuesday afternoon her eyes moistened and her face reddened as she talked about Saturday’s deadly assault.
“Parents tell their children: ‘Go to the library. I’m going to be late.’ It’s a safe place. They set up meeting rooms with tables so the kids can do their homework.
“A church and a library. Those are two special places. It’s like a sanctuary.’’
Manzo, who has served as an elected Town Meeting member for 30 years, said the assault has shaken this community of 21,000 8 miles north of Boston.
“We’re like an intimate little family,’’ she told me as we sat in the back of her bookstore. “We’re feeling afraid and uncomfortable. We don’t feel safe. Can you imagine someone walking in on a Saturday morning to the reading room of a public library and doing this? It’s just a new horror for us. I just saw someone as I was walking past Starbucks this morning and we gave each other a hug.’’
At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Ann Wirtanen walked out to the front steps of the library she has led since January 2009 and unlocked the doors, inviting patrons back into a building where normalcy remains an aspiration.
There was a police presence inside. There was a therapy dog ready to offer comfort. Members of the local clergy awaited with smiles and prayer and words from ancient scripture.
“This is really a gut punch for public libraries everywhere,’’ Wirtanen told me as we chatted at a conference table on the library’s lower level.
When she arrived here on Saturday morning, she was greeted by a phalanx of local and state police officers. Witnesses were being interviewed. Surveillance tape was being retrieved.
It looked like a crime scene instead of a library. Because that’s what it was.
“What can you do?’’ the library director asked. “You try to go back to what it is we offer. You have to hang on to what’s important. We offer space. We offer a welcoming, warm environment. We offer a place for people to better themselves.’’
I asked Ann Wirtanen if she knew Deane Stryker.
“Well, I didn’t know her,’’ the library director replied. “But she has been a frequent visitor. I didn’t know her name. I didn’t go to school with her. But she came in and did what we like. She came in and she studied. She did her work. She was a good library patron.’’
She doubtlessly came to this gem for what it once was and for what it now struggles to regain: A warm and welcoming place of whispers where knowledge is revered and wisdom is just a book away.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.