Going through old items in her late mother's house, Michele Wojciechowski stumbled upon something she wasn't expecting — a book she had checked out from the Enoch Pratt Free Library 34 years earlier.
Buried under paperwork in a kitchen cabinet above the refrigerator, a copy of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," adapted and illustrated by Alice and Joel Schick, collected dust and library fines.
"My first reaction was to totally freak out," said the Kingsville writer.
On Thursday, Wojciechowski returned the book to Enoch Pratt's Southeastern Anchor branch in Highlandtown, a few blocks from her mother's house.
The book was 12,346 days late, and at a daily rate of 20 cents, Wojciechowski's fine would have totaled about $2,500.
Fortunately for her, the library caps its fines at $6 for adult books, said Roswell Encina, the Pratt's director of communications.
"We won't nickel-and-dime folks, even if they took out books a long time ago," Encina said. Invoking the library system's founder, he said, "That was always Mr. Pratt's mission: 'The books are free, but please return them.'"
Wojciechowski paid her $6 fine Thursday morning, accompanied by Encina and the library's branch manager, before handing the book over to an amused librarian. The book, which was last stamped April 24, 1981, will return to the branch's main book collection.
When Wojciechowski found the book last fall, she said her first reaction was to "completely freak out." Meanwhile, her husband, an accountant, began to calculate the book's late fees.
By his calculations, the fines translated to around 8,000 1-ounce bags of Utz potato chips or roughly 400 packages of Berger cookies, Wojciechowski said.
"I'll admit," she said, "for a tiny second, when he started figuring out what the fines would be, I said, 'You know what? Maybe they have a night drop. Maybe we could sneak over and just throw it in.'"
After doing a bit of research, though, Wojciechowski learned about the overdue fine cap. Relieved, she reached out and arranged to return it. It was never a question of whether she would keep or return the book, she said.
"I was raised Catholic — I would feel way too guilty about the whole thing to keep it," she said, laughing. "Every time I looked at it, it would be saying, 'Liar! You took the book out and still have it!'"
Wojciechowski has always had a passion for libraries. As a first-grader, she said, she even presented a corsage to then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer at the dedication of the Highlandtown branch.
Lynne Distance, Southeast Anchor branch manager, said that the library may have realized years ago the book was missing, but it was long since forgotten. Instead, she said, when Wojciechowski contacted library officials, they were "very pleasantly surprised."
The book was, at the time of its publication, something new and exciting, Distance said. The idea of the graphic novel was just taking off as a way to attract young readers, and "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" was a way to expose readers to classic novels.
"At the time, youth librarians were really fighting to have these," Distance said. "Now they've really taken off, and they're one of the biggest things kids like to read."
Wojciechowski's 34-year late period is not the longest Encina has seen.
In 2010, the Pratt received a package from a World War II veteran living in St. Louis. While stationed at Fort Meade in 1946, John J. Wolfe had checked out a copy of "Sound and Symbol in Chinese" in anticipation of what he thought would be a military assignment in Asia.
When he found it in his private collection 65 years later, he mailed it back.
"Basically a lifetime had passed while the book was still checked out," Encina said, adding that officials waived the fine in that case. "We loved the story, and there are stories like this all around."
Other libraries have their share of late-return stories, as well. A few years ago, recalled Jamie Watson, collection development coordinator for the Baltimore County Public Library, someone returned a vinyl album of The O'Jays' "So Full of Love" to the library system — 29 years after it was due. The due date? Watson's 18th birthday.
"A very long time ago," the collections development coordinator said jokingly.
For Wojciechowski, her book's return presents an opportunity for a new generation of readers.
"I feel bad. If I hadn't been the first person to get it out and keep it out, other people would have enjoyed it for many years, too."