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'Truly a force of nature': Martha Brunstein, friend of the public library, dies at 86


Former president of the Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library, Martha Brunstein, died on Dec. 26, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

The Chapel Hill Public Library held a four-day book sale this past weekend in memory of 86-year-old Martha Brunstein, who died on Dec. 26.

Brunstein had a special love for books and reading and has been named a Community Treasure by the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

From 2009 to 2018, she was the president of the Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library, an organization that helps to support and raise money for the library. 

“Martha was truly a force of nature,” Susan Brown, the director of Chapel Hill Public Library, said. “She was really passionate about Chapel Hill, and she was really passionate about the library.”

Brunstein founded the Friends Book Store, located on the library’s lower level.

She managed the bookstore starting in 2013 until it moved online in 2019 because of the pandemic, Brown said. The online operation now makes around $50,000 to $60,000 a year for the library, Brown said.

“She advocated for that to happen, she got people on board with the idea and she made it a reality,” Brown said. 

Before Brunstein became president, Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library raised an average of $30,000 a year for the public library. By 2018, the Friends' annual gift to the library was $135,000.

“What she loved just about more than anything was making money for the library,” Brown said. “I think she would find it very fitting that we had a sale.”

Beyond her work for the library, Brunstein worked in print advertising, volunteered with Duke Health Care and Hospice and was involved with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, among other things. 

Karen Curtin, president of Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library, said that the organization had never done a promotional book sale before. So when they decided to hold the sale this past weekend, they wanted to make it a part of Brunstein's legacy.

“She was feisty, she was very determined, incredibly motivated, somebody who worked incredibly hard, expected everyone else to support that effort as well,” Curtin said. “She commanded a great deal of respect for everything she did, for all the energy she put into the Friends, and there are a lot of people that cared very much about her.”

Brunstein was responsible for starting to run book sales, organizing staff, maintaining inventory and managing finances for the bookstore, Curtin said.

“She was involved in so many things and gave a great deal of her time and energy and life to the friends and the library which she very much loved,” Curtin said. 

Marj Moe, the vice president of Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library said that the book sale in Brunstein's honor did very well and made about $1,600.

“She is one of the strong independent women who made her life a good life," Moe said. "She had good jobs, she had a good career, she was well liked, she did a lot of volunteer work."

Kathe Baer, the treasurer of Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library, said that while working at Friends, Brunstein became her closest friend.

“Her brain was sharper than mine was back when I was 21,” Baer said. “She would tape all of the Jeopardy shows, and we would watch Jeopardy, and I swear that damn woman knew more answers than the people on the show.”

Baer said that Brunstein was a great person to work for and she always did 10 times more than she needed to.

In Brunstein’s Chapel Hill Community Treasure 2018 biography, Brunstein said, “If there’s anyone who should be able to find a better way to bring about needed changes, it is the people who live in and love this area.”

To donate to the library in Brunstein's memory, visit Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library - Donate.

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