Back in the early days when Buffalo was a rowdy canal town with a brawling red-light district and bustling port, a few forward-thinking citizens had a community-minded idea:
Let's have a library.
That simple wish back in 1836 -- a desire to put good books into the hands of Buffalo's citizens, for free -- was the genesis of a public library system that is today celebrating 175 years of history.
To commemorate that accomplishment -- and to raise some much-needed funds at the same time -- the Library Foundation of Buffalo & Erie County will hold a "Rare Affair Gala" to benefit the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the Central Library.
The black-tie event, a first for the public library as an on-site gala and fundraiser, is expected to draw about 500 people to the second floor of the downtown library, organizers said.
"While it's a fundraiser, it's truly a celebration of 175 years of the library as well," said Anne Leary, who is vice chairwoman of the Library Foundation and planning co-chairwoman of the event with her husband, Dan.
The gala will include silent and live auctions featuring more than 40 items -- some related to libraries and the arts, others to Buffalo's heritage.
Among the highlights:
A rocking chair believed to be the one used by Mark Twain in an iconic early 1900s photograph of the author taken on the porch of a house in Dublin, N.H. The rocker was donated to the library recently by the owners of the home in New Hampshire that Twain stayed in and where he was photographed. Twain lived in Buffalo in the late 1860s and was editor of a newspaper here, the Express.
"This gentleman [in New Hampshire] decided he wanted to help our library, and he gave us this chair," Leary said of the simple, cane-seated rocker. "It's a very interesting story. This was given to us to help the library's collections."
An antique walnut table that was used as part of the furnishings in Buffalo's earliest libraries; the square, carved-legged table was recently refinished by Paul Zywiczynski, a mechanic and carpenter for the library system.
"We thought, 'What is really unique to the libraries?' " Leary said of the table. "We had to get special permission from the county to auction [the table]."
Reproductions of little-known artifacts in the library's rare books collections, which have not been replicated before and thus are unique and valuable, library officials said.
A few examples: a reproduction of Thomas Jefferson's copy of "The Federalist Papers"; a reproduction of a 1776 letter written by George Washington; and a reproduction of one of the earliest maps of the world, dating to 1475.
"It shows the Garden of Eden!" Leary said.
Stanford and Judi Lipsey are honorary chairmen for the evening. Lipsey, publisher of The Buffalo News, will present the library with a check representing the monies raised through the "Bucks for Books" campaign.
The "Bucks" campaign, which concludes at the end of this month and is expected to raise more than $200,000, is raising funds specifically for print book purchases for public libraries across Erie County, library officials said.
The library system's books and materials budget, set at $3.5 million in 2011, is projected to drop to $3 million in 2012, library officials said.
The library is trying to come up with creative ways to close that gap, they said.
"The 'Bucks for Books' campaign is purely for [purchasing] print materials," said Kenneth H. Stone, the library's deputy director and chief financial officer.
"Those are monies only for books. You'll start seeing those books on shelves in January and February. They will go to libraries throughout the system."
The "Bucks for Books" funds will likely purchase 19,000 books for libraries in Erie County; maybe more, depending on the amount collected by the end of the campaign, Stone said.
Leary, who is also a trustee on the board of the library system, said support for the fundraising effort so far has shown that people want to get behind the public libraries.
"I think the community is finally realizing there is a need to help the library," Leary said.
"The library is motherhood and apple pie. You can't say no to the library."
The "Rare Affair Gala" will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the second floor of the Central Library.
The live auction will take place at 9 p.m.
Tickets for the event are available at a cost of $175 per person.
For more information, call the Central Library at 858-7182.