Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Shops on a Maine Highway--Route 1

"Book" is the new "Silk"

Of course we're all familiar with the famed and legendary "Silk Road," but perhaps less familiar with the not-so-famous or legendary "Book Road." Then again, this road may be famous inside the state of Maine, but not outside. Nonetheless, even if the locals have not officially named Route 1 along the state's coast "Book Road," I will give it that distinction. The interesting thing about this road is that it goes through some very pretty country, but is still in some parts rather rural. Yet, it has developed a book culture along its thoroughfares. Here is why this is interesting, and why I think some sociological speculation must come into play here for a few moments: in all of my travels around this country, I've rarely--if ever--seen a stretch of highway that boasted so many book shops or book sellers as Route 1. So what could be the reason?

Background: Once again, I was out driving back from a trip this summer, when I came through Bar Harbor. My schedule was tight and I was attempting to get back to NY within the course of one day (which, by the way, such a trip is a bit of a hike, and ended up taking me nearly 12 hours.) So pulling out of Bar Harbor and heading southwest on Route 1, I drove down the highway and passed through some lovely little old towns and villages. But every so often I would pass by a sign that read "books." And here is where the biggest irony or paradox came--here I am, the great book lover and searcher of off-the-beaten path book shops, and because of my crunched schedule, I couldn't stop at almost any! But it's no problem, because a) I can always go back, and in fact, make a trip of just that "book trail," and b) I have too many books as it is!--oh, and c) I'm a librarian for goodness sake!--what do I need more books for!?

Okay, so back onto Route 1: it's a splendid road, with some great views, especially the architecturally fabulous bridge near Fort Knox State Park, in Bucksport, ME. As I drive onward, with my nose and stomach fixed on finding "Maine's Biggest Lobster Role," which each successive road side shack and seafood restaurant was boasting, I began to realize that there weren't just "a few little bookshops" along Route 1--there were legions of them! Something wasn't quite right here...or maybe it was TOO right! I was both surprised and delighted to find this new "book highway" (perhaps the old fashioned version of the "information superhighway," except this was Route 1, and the houses and Queen-Anne's Lace were nicer than the internet.) This "bookway" then had me thinking--why on earth are there so many book shops here? Usually there'd be lots of antique shops, but book shops?

I then realized that the answer might just be found in looking at the demographics of the area--what is Maine, after all, especially in the summer and on the coast...but a tourist destination for New Englanders, especially Bostonians.

To explain this phenomenon a bit further, let me go back to some of my earlier bookish peregrinations. A few years ago, I was living in Chicago, and decided to visit Macinac Island (pronounced "MACK-in-aw") in northern Michigan. The distance between Chicago and northern Michigan is quite long--about 400 miles on the highways (one way!), and about 450 on the back roads, especially those along the western shores of the state overlooking Lake Michigan. Of course, on the way up, I took those back roads, mostly Route 31 north to Traverse City. The curious observation I made on this trip through Michigan, up to Macninac, was in the antique and book shops that I visited.

There were several antique shops, which I certainly found interesting, but also some curious book shops (one of the best was in a tool shed, off some side road, that I found while driving back to Chicago--and I bought a reasonably priced copy of Capote's "In Cold Blood" for ~$3). The thing I found odd about all of the book shops I visited in western Michigan was that a) the quality of books was rather low or average--and by "low or average," I mean the books were either romance novels or run-of-the-mill pulp, fiction and self-help books. Almost nothing in classic literature, no best sellers in non-fiction, or anything that gave a hint of the odd, the interesting, or even the foreign. There were no books in other languages or even translated from other languages. It was mostly bland fare. Now the other thing b) was that many of these books were way, way overpriced...as if the dealers and book shop owners thought their books (especially old books) had some intrinsic value based on their antiquity--even with mold and other things growing on them!

I would have thought this a fluke, to be seen at just one antique shop with its book stalls. But as the trip through Michigan went on, I consistently found that book stalls in antique shops and book stores were all pricing their books very, very high. I remember finding some grimy and stained old volumes of some Churchill histories running for near $30 a volume! And they weren't even close to half that in actual value. Perhaps the best part of the biblio-adventure was the discovery of a book sale at the public library located on the quaint and old fashioned, but rather well-to-do Mackinac Island. The residents, presumably of some means, as well as the visitors, some of whom shell out more than $600 a night to stay at the island's more posh hotels, would also have some interesting reading tastes, that might reflect their stations in life. Curiously, again, though there were some better books to be found in the Mackinac library--I bought McCullough's "Truman" (a beastly size, but good read) and Galsworthy's "Forsyte Saga" for mere change...probably a couple of dollars--the interesting thing was that the majority of the books I found were not exceptional or out-of-the-ordinary. It was more of a "Nora Roberts Library." Nothing against Nora Roberts, of course. I think the tone, though, was "power suits, in--Pickwick, out."

After that great Macinac trip, I thought for a long time about this: how come the quality of the books was so "average?" Perhaps the only other great find on that trip was at another library book sale. I don't remember the town that it was in, but I do remember that the best book at the sale--probably containing a few thousand books on its sale tables--was a Jane Smiley novel! (And I bought it!) Back to Maine, now. Driving down Route 1, and suddenly realizing the proliferation of book shops on this highway made me think back to that Michigan trip. But my thoughts about Michigan and about Route 1 in Maine were thoughts of contrast. Back in Michigan, the western shores of the state are, for many, a getaway from both Chicago and Detroit--and probably some other large midwestern cities. Many of those who go to these places are wealthy, or have to be, in order to afford some of the magnificent waterfront homes and condos that line the shores. In short, people come here to "chill out" and "relax," and not necessarily to read. But does that explain it completely?

Not really. I think it goes back to the locations of these places, and the culture of reading that exists in these two locales. Maine is and has traditionally been a place of refuge for New Englanders and Bostonians, groups who have a long history of intellectualism, historical memory, and family lineages. I'm sure there is more to it than simply these three things, but that academic culture seems to carry itself north in the summer. If you have droves of professors and university-level professionals running to the craggy banks of the Atlantic coast in Maine each year, they are bound to be carrying the newest, best, most classic texts with them, but also wanting to leave some behind, as well as find a few more books to read. And since Route 1 is "the" road of access to many of the greatest ocean vistas and summer rentals, it only makes sense that a culture of reading, books, book shops, and well-funded public libraries would emerge, grow, be fostered, and prosper in these hills leading to the sea.

The midwest's history is not as old in these terms...in fact New England has a good 200 year lead. And the culture is noticeably different when we look at book shops and libraries, what they carry, hold, sell... . These places are microcosms of the towns, states, and regions they are in. If you ever want to see if a place is a good fit for you to live, check out the libraries and book stores. I guarantee that you'll get a better sense of the place once you've visited one.

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