October 2009 | Christopher Lancette

Travel Log: Unraveling the mystery of Oxford, Maryland

Oxford trees 2 low res.JPG
I hop off my bicycle as I pull in to Oxford, a tiny town on Maryland's eastern shore. It's my first visit but I'm quickly confused by what I see. The sun is cascading down through the orange and red leaves of trees huddling up in a park by the edge of the Tred Avon River. Beyond them, cruise ships and sail boats on the Chesapeake Bay slide their way between celestial blue seas and skies. Behind me, bed-and-breakfasts with white picket fences dot the street leading to a ferry but they, like most of the restaurants, seem devoid of people.

Why is a place this beautiful so deserted?

My eyes light up when I spot an independent book shop across the street. Housed inside an old bank building, it is open for business. I'm certain the proprietor must be there, ready to ply me with an answer to my query and enough books to stuff the saddlebags I threw on my bike when I started my flat-as-an-endpaper ride through Easton, Oxford and St. Michael's. I had been told it was a biker's paradise; I didn't know I'd discover the same is true for bibliophiles.

Kathy Harig, the owner of Mystery Loves Company, tells me that the town may be asleep today as it's the off-season but that her shop does solid business year-round. Since moving her store here from Baltimore four years ago, she has focused on serving both the well-read mystery reader and locals who love the array of other offerings. Then there's the constant stream of people like me who accidentally stumble on to her doorstep. 

Mystery owner 1 low res.JPG
"There's a lot of stuff in this town but it's tucked away," says Harig, a former librarian who decided to buy the store -- then named The Butler Did It -- when she overhead two people at an American Library Association conference talking about its availability. "But it's probably easier to find it on the Internet than in person."

We continue chatting as I pile up a nice stack of my favorite kinds of souvenirs. I'm drawn to books I see inside the bank vault as I had never set foot inside one before. Here she keeps her signed first editions by mystery writers she has collected and hosted over the past two decades. I know nothing about the genre so she recommends John Dunning's novel, The Bookman's Wake. It's about a book collector.


The vault is also home to mystery writers ranging from Laura Lippman -- creator of the Tess Monaghan series set in Baltimore -- to Washington D.C. resident and crime writer George Pelecanos.

Harig also tells me about local authors in other genres whose work line her shelves and cabinets. She pulls down Helen Chappell, whom she describes as the "Garrison Keillor of Maryland's eastern shore." She points to children's writers like Priscilla Cummings of Santa Claws fame, and non-fiction writers that participate in her "Scribes of the Shore" events: Ian Scott, a former World Bank director, wrote about restoring his boat. Poet and Pulitzer Prize nominee Sue Ellen Thompson is there.

I make my final selections and add a t-shirt I can't resist. "Real men read!" it declares
Harig hands me my receipt. I glance out the back window to the river and ocean, mentioning that I still don't get why Oxford isn't packed year-round. It's just so beautiful.

"If you like nature and you like to experience it quietly," she says, "this is definitely the place for you. It is amazing to me -- when you look at all the resources we have -- that the stores and restaurants aren't open all the time."

It's a mystery to me, too, but a fortuitous one. I exit the book shop and see one of the bed-and-breakfasts with a white picket fence. Let everyone else keep away: I'll be happy to have Oxford all to myself.