The 1968 magazine, with the library's labels.
The 1968 magazine, with the library’s labels. Courtesy Cuyahoga County Public Library

It’s never too late to do the right thing. Recently, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, which serves the greater Cleveland, Ohio, area, got a surprising, 51-year-old gift. The library’s Parma branch, one of 27 tributaries, received a mysterious bubble mailer via the U.S. Postal Service. Inside, the librarians found a vintage Life magazine from September 1968, featuring The Beatles on the cover.

The Parma staff, tickled (and flummoxed) by the belated return, took a picture of the iconic issue and shared it with their fellow library branches. After making the rounds on social media, the unique journey of this 1968 magazine has become something of a suburban Ohio sensation. Robert Rua, of the Parma branch, says the copy of the magazine is undeniably theirs, though they don’t have records of periodicals from that long ago.

“It has our ownership stickers on it, the ones the library puts on our materials to make sure the items end up back with us,” he says. “So it clearly was one of our magazines … there’s a sticker in the upper left corner that is similar to the ones on our current magazines.” The return of a magazine from five decades ago is significant, as the library currently has no other magazines from this era. (They tend to not keep them quite so long.) Luckily, Rua says, the item was returned in fair shape—not mint condition, but there are no missing pages or egregiously frayed edges.

The sender, a basically anonymous “Brian,” also included a brief note, along with a money order for $100 to cover outstanding late fees. “It came with a very brief letter, and the letter said: ‘Hello, I stole this magazine from the Parma Ridge Road Library when I was a kid. I’m sorry I took it. I’ve enclosed a check for the late fee,’” Rua says. The branch processed the money order as they would any other late fee, although, by this point, the librarians had simply cut their losses and declared the special Beatles Life issue a “missing item.” Technically, Brian hadn’t actually accumulated the late fees, though—as he said, it was stolen, not checked out.

Inside the special issue, which previewed the band's soon-to-be published biography.
Inside the special issue, which previewed the band’s soon-to-be published biography. Courtesy Cuyahoga County Public Library

“The money order is signed but the last name is virtually impossible to make out, and the envelope just says Brian and claims to have been sent from an Air Force base,” says Rua. “So we don’t know who Brian is, he’s a mystery person. We don’t know why he sent this back to us after so many years.” In 1968, the branch building (which has since been remodeled) was walking distance from nearby schools, so it’s assumed that Brian was a student at the time, and probably just enamored with the biggest celebrities in the world.

Inside this highly collectible issue of Life, there’s an article on Richard Nixon, and a significant feature story on The Beatles. It was a significant moment in American and music history. “September 1968 was just two months before they released the White Album,” Rua says. “And inside the magazine, the feature on The Beatles is the first of a two-part story that is an excerpt from the first official biography of The Beatles written by Hunter Davies, which I believe was the only authorized biography of The Beatles that was ever written.” Davies’s history of the group was published in full that month as well—just two years before their earthshaking breakup.

The issue, because of its unique past, is going to have an interesting future. Says Rua: “We do have plans to put the magazine on display along with [Brian’s] letter, and a plaque that says: ‘It’s never too late to return your library items.’”