My steps quickened as I walked along the familiar crushed rock driveway.
A few steps away stood a first love: the weathered bookstore by the cove that captured my heart as a child and never released its hold.
I recently returned for my annual visit, and my affection rekindled as it always does when I pull off two-lane Island Road. Lobster Lane Bookshop in Spruce Head, Maine, does not look like much from the road, a low, sprawling cottage overlooking a green inlet of Penobscot Bay.
Inside, though, a magical world I met 40 summers ago reveals itself, as much a seasonal tradition for me as blueberry pie.
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The ceilings may press down, and the warren of narrow corridors and even tighter aisles squeeze patrons trying to pass each other, but anybody who relishes an hour or two lost amid titles will feel as comfortable as if stretched out on a hammock. Spines cram shelves and peek from boxes, producing surprises, delights and, inevitably, a stack to bring to the cluttered counter at the door.
In the days when the claustrophobic interior seemed just right for my size, a Lobster Lane trip was thrilling, a venture into a mysterious cave of marvels. Mrs. York, the owner, would issue a cheery Down East-tinged greeting from behind the front counter, and then I was off around a few corners to the children’s room. I never knew what I might find sifting through the cornucopia of stories, comic books, old aviation magazines and other inexpensive treasures.
As I grew, I started exploring. I discovered the military history and American history aisles, sparking my interest in World War II and sowing the seeds for a history degree. A labyrinth of a fiction section introduced me to the private eyes of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker.
Particularly captivating were the boxes of assorted paperbacks for a dime or a quarter. My father and I would rummage through the piles, filling paper grocery bags with our loot. Years of such hoarding have led to tall, eclectic stacks scaling the walls of our summer cabin — literary insulation.
In truth, Lobster Lane really was like summer school for me, though my young brain immersed in the lazy days of vacation would have scoffed at the notion. My teachers were Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, John Le Carre, Agatha Christie, Barbara Tuchman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Eudora Welty and a host of lesser but no less fascinating lights. They not only instructed me in the fine arts of writing, they fired my imagination about life and the world, pointing me along a path that continues today.
Mrs. York passed away a few years ago, but her daughter has carried on seamlessly, replenishing the stocks from bountiful sources and coming up from Massachusetts to open the shop on weekends. I’m happy to report it’s still as cramped as ever, still as enjoyable, still a mine of dust jackets and vintage spines waiting to be plumbed while ocean breezes waft in through windows.
If anything, the place appears to have grown in popularity since my childhood, its reputation having spread. During my last visit, I found myself having to flatten against shelves to let passing traffic slip by, or ask other patrons to do the same for me. A glance into my old haunt, the children’s room, tripped sudden nostalgia from the sight of a boy and a girl delving into crammed boxes.
It was the other end of the spectrum from another bookstore visited this summer, Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore. The famous Powell’s occupies a whole block and several floors, so it’s justified in billing itself as a city of books. Shelves tower over customers, the top levels for stock, and some genre sections are large enough to be specialty shops in themselves.
That might sound like a Wal-Mart of prose, a headache-inducing vastness, but the vibe felt surprisingly cozy and funky for such a mega-operation. At every turn, people browsed and lingered, turning pages, or sat in chairs and on the floor engaged in whatever world of their choosing. Young and old, liberal and conservative, regardless of religion or profession, we were united in our thirst for reading — just like at little old Lobster Lane.
Both times were heartening. Like the American Association of University Women’s popular annual sale, they reminded me that, even in a tablet age, books haven’t died. They’re still a thread that links us, as are bookstores, communal wellsprings for the soul. As our society fragments into niche pursuits and communities, bookstores may be among the last universal gathering places, appealing to a full demographic cross-section with their repositories of knowledge, insight and entertainment.
In other words, they’re worth keeping alive.
Though Centre County has fewer bookstores than I wish, we’re lucky to have some fine ones, such as Webster’s Bookstore Café and the Forefathers Book Shop. Please support all of them. Online acquisitions can supply titles, but they won’t include any impromptu conversations with fellow treasure-seekers or knowledgable proprietors. There won’t be any mutual laughs about running out of space at home. You won’t be surprised, enlightened or transported far away while standing beside a shelf.
You’ll get a book to read but not a story to share.