Feisty book reviewer finally calls it quits

No one spices up Davidson's Town Hall quite like Margaret Belle Banks.

For 15 years, she has sprinkled in ribald jokes with the serious quarterly book reviews she reads to her audiences.

But Banks, feisty at 90, said she's relieved that her next quarterly review, on Tuesday, will be her last.

“Most 90-year-olds are dribbling,” she said during an interview in her four-story 1831 home on Gilead Road in Huntersville last week.

Not Belle, as everyone calls her.

Her mind is sharp. She reads three books a week. She plays bridge at Jetton Park in Cornelius and blogs on her computer at home.

“I have a wonderful zest for life,” she said. “I have a very good time every day.”

It's just that her mind is trapped in a body that doesn't let her get around much, she said: “I still have a lot of energy in me, but it has no expression.”

Reviewing new works of fiction and nonfiction is downright time-consuming.

“It takes a good deal of work,” she said. “You have to read them. You have to write the reviews. I don't drive anymore. It's just too much. It's not easy being 90.”

Her free book-review sessions evolved from her 14 years at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. She substituted at the Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius branches and won “reader advisory awards” for her skill in recommending books to patrons.

She reviews four books each time, devoting about 20 minutes to each. But what her audiences of about 25 really love are the jokes she pulls off the Internet, she said.

“I have a portfolio of off-color jokes, as long as men don't show up,” she said. “Now they're showing up.”

She has several thousand books in the home where she's lived since she met and married Richard Torrance Banks. She grew up in Coatesville, Pa., and met Banks in Wilmington, Del., when he was a soldier in World War II.

“When he brought me down here, I thought, ‘Here we go, “Gone with the Wind,”'” she said. “A Yankee gal in a big plantation house.”

The brick home with the spiral staircases is known as Cedar Grove Plantation, which always made her husband cringe because it sounded so uppity. Her husband, who died at age 87, was the longtime arts writer for The Charlotte Observer.

She laughs now, thinking about how the house spooked baby-sitters of the couple's son and daughter, enough to make the baby-sitters call the couple and ask them to return.

It didn't help knowing that the artificial leg of Dick Banks' great-great-grandfather is still in the attic.

“If we do have ghosts, we are related,” Belle Banks said with a laugh.

Her children, one now in his late 50s and the other in her early 60s, were the seventh generation of the family to live in the house. Her son lives just across the road. She has five grandchildren.

Her loyal following at Davidson Town Hall intends to celebrate Belle with a cake and a photo album Tuesday night.

“We are all sorry to see her retire,” said Karen Besold, who was a substitute librarian with her and has attended the book review sessions all 15 years. “In my opinion, there will be no one that I know that can continue in Belle's footsteps.”

Belle said she's just surprised she's still kicking.

“I'm astounded I'm still here and not dribbling,” she said.

Her secret?

“Laughter helps you live,” she said. “The more you can smile and laugh, the longer it affects your longevity.”