Down East Book Trail

I recently read a blog item in Down East magazine speculating on why it is that Maine, that big, craggy, irresistible coastal state in Northern New England, is “so bookish.” By that, the writer, Paul Doiron, says he means “the whole literary shebang,” to wit: “the bookstores and reading groups and vast hosts of library volunteers,” not to mention a vibrant community of writers, Stephen King being the best known contemporary voice in a long tradition of accomplishment that has included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kenneth Roberts and Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Doiron speculates that this passion for books and reading might have something to do with the long winters, which I know, as a person who went to college in the Pine Tree State (Bates, ‘65) can be formidable. But there is also something wonderfully complex in the Maine character, I think, that savors a good story, and maintains an enduring respect for things in print. (One response on Doiron’s blog offered this: “It’s dark. It’s cold. There’s a lot of empty space and the mind wanders. The options? Read, write or drink a lot. In really tough winters, sometimes we go for all three.”)

What has made me think about all this was a quick trip my wife Connie and I made this past week up to Bar Harbor for a bit of research, a pleasant getaway that allowed us to enjoy a leisurely drive home along U.S. 1, visiting one second hand bookstore after another, six by my count, over one forty-mile stretch between Trenton and Searsport, all of them open for business, which is saying something, since there is still scattered snow on the ground despite the official arrival of spring, and most of the summer tourist attractions still off-season.

ChickenBarn.jpgBrowsing was pretty much the order of the day for me, though I was nonetheless impressed by the numbers and the variety of the offerings. One place I would certainly put on the must-visit list for anyone trekking Down East is Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques in Ellsworth, a perfectly appropriate name for a converted chicken barn one hundred yards long, three stories high, and filled on the first floor with every manner of antique and knick-knack, and lined on the second with 120,000 books, magazines and pieces of ephemera. The place was bustling when we stopped by Saturday afternoon, so there was little time to chat at length with owners Annegret and Mike Cukierski, who opened this splendid curiosity twenty-three years ago, and have every intention of keeping it going, what with son Chad now fully involved in the operations. There’s lots of stuff in here on Maine, a healthy section of regional history and literature, and remarkable runs of magazines and periodicals. The owners say this is the largest book store in the state, and I don’t think this is a case of hyperbole. It is easily the longest book gallery I have ever seen--a football field, one end to the other, and a fabulous chicken sign out front.

Book Wine.jpgWe had great fun, too, at Country Store Antiques, Books & Wine, just outside of Bar Harbor in Trenton, a pretty spacious operation in its own right, with a fine variety of offerings, including a full floor devoted entirely to 50,000 books. I especially enjoyed schmoozing with owner Vicki Landman, a former county librarian in Maryland, now a full time books and antiques seller in her native state. I told her of my interests in the Maine paper industry, and she suggested a number of titles that might be useful, and gave me the names of some people to contact for more information. “Hey, I’m a librarian,” she said.

We didn’t get a chance to stop at Harding’s Rare Books further down the coast in Wells, a lot closer to my home in Central Massachusetts, and always a favorite stop of mine whenever I’m in the area. Any booking odyssey to Maine has to include a stop here--with ample time set aside for serious examination of each and every one of the fourteen rooms. Founder Doug Harding has been in the business here since 1960, and is a widely respected professional in the trade. (I got my deathbed edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” from him twenty-five years ago, a lovely copy in mint condition, and my collection of Winslow  Homer wood engravings has been greatly enriched by my many visits here over the years as well.) For those who need a navigational fix, Wells is 48 miles south of Freeport, home of L.L Bean. There are many splendid places to stop for lobster in between. 

NAB BH.jpgFinally, if I may, how about a picture of yours truly in Acadia National Park, courtesy of CVB, to prove that one does not live entirely by books alone (at least not all the time):

Happy booking!

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