After a trip to the Now You’re Cooking kitchen store in Bath on a recent autumnal Saturday afternoon, my love asked if I’d like to walk down to a bookstore he had remembered seeing in his own travels. I didn’t take much persuading. Though I live in Brunswick, I haven’t spent much time in the city of Bath. I have had lunch in the park that overlooks both the river and the BIW yard, and I’ve eaten at Beale Street Barbeque. But I have not done much more in the way of exploring all that the downtown has to offer. So I was eager to do some sightseeing that day. And that is how we ended up at what is sure to become one of my new favorite bookshops: Open Door Books.
As I wandered into the back corner of the store, marveling at the beautiful old books wedged into shelves and stacked into piles, I could hear my love talking with the owner up front. It’s not unusual for him to make friends wherever he goes, so I didn’t think much about it until I heard him say, “She just started a blog about old bookshops. I’m sure she’ll want to write about this one.” And so I moseyed back up to the counter, where I met the owner, a man named John Ring, who was more than happy to give me a brief overview of the shop and to share his love of books with me. He assured me that the store is doing well (to paraphrase a musing of his: “technology changes, but books stay the same”). He also said that a lot of his business lately has come from “house calls” – people who have acquired too many books and who ask him to take some of the excess to sell in his shop for other folks to enjoy.
From the shelf behind the counter, where rare hardcover editions were on display, he pulled down a pirated copy of Tolkien’s The Return of the King, a glossy hardcover that was produced in China. “You can tell by the pages that it’s a pirated book,” he pointed out. “They have a different feel. And the label back here, on the back cover.” As he placed the book gently back on the shelf, I noticed a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie.
“I just finished that one yesterday,” I said, pointing it out. “I sailed through it in only a few hours.”
“Oh, what a great read,” he said. “King’s first real success.”
After chatting a bit more, I learned that John is also President of the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association. He gave me a pamphlet of information about other used and rare bookshops throughout Maine – a great resource to have, as a rudimentary Google search does not always reveal the hidden gems of the booksellers’ world.
One of the best things about used bookshops is that you never know what you will find. Nothing compares to the sense of possibility I feel every time I push open a door to a bookshop, the bells jingling above me, the crowded shelves before me. There is a certainty to the uncertainty of old bookshops – I know that within those hallowed halls, I will find stories I never knew I needed, and the search will always be an adventure. There is an echo to this feeling inside more mainstream bookstores that sell newer volumes – BAM, Barnes & Noble, etc. One will also make discoveries in chain bookstores, will find new favorite authors and stories to add to their collection. But everything within stores like that is so organized, so categorized and easily accessible. Don’t get me wrong. I never turn down a chance to go to a new bookstore. But my heart lies in old bookshops, for I find comfort within the literary entropy – a thrill of the chase of the perfect book – a chance to unearth volumes that have lain hidden from the world for years. The arduous, sometimes pain-staking hunt for the right book among shelves of unorganized old books can be exhausting, yes, but more than that, it is always exhilarating.
After finding many treasures I forced myself to resist – a couple editions of Gone With the Wind to add to the two I already have, a beautifully illustrated copy of Moby Dick I had to admit to myself I’d probably never read, and a red hardcover edition of The Great Gatsby that would have been used for display purposes only – I headed back to find my love. He found the greatest treasures that day. Two books by Henry Van Dyke, one published in 1899, the other in 1907. One was dedicated to Grover Cleveland. I’d give more description, but these books will be given as a gift, and I don’t want the intended recipient to know what to expect.
With about 12,000 volumes of books, many of which are rare and/or out of print, it was difficult (in a wonderful way) to choose where I wanted to focus my energy for the remainder of our visit. I spent a lot of time perusing the children’s section, looking for books to pass down to my niece. The two I most wanted to give her – lovely first editions of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, were out of my price range. But it was still fun to look over the books, giggling at titles that nowadays would never be deemed appropriate for children.
Seeing our purchases, John commended our choices, and we spent some time talking about the great condition of the Henry Van Dyke books. Before we left, he told me with bright eyes and a grin that he looked forward to communicating further with me in the future. Meeting and chatting with an honest-to-God bookseller that day at Open Door Books validated for me how lucky I am to connect with fellow bibliophiles, all of whom share a deep love and respect for the role words and stories play in our lives. And hopefully my words here, small and quiet as they may be, will help lead others to an unexpected bookshop, and to the books that are waiting to be found.
My lifelong obsession with reading has taught me this: books open countless doors to you. Whether it’s a jolly green door opening into the hillside of a hobbit hole at teatime, an imposing, creaking gate leading up to a castle full of magic and mischief, or an ivy-covered entrance beckoning you into a secret garden, you are sure to find a new place to call home.
Open Door Books is located at 178 Front Street and is open year round, daily 10-5.
“The bookshop has a thousand books, all colors, hues, and tinges, and every cover is a door that turns on magic hinges.”
– Nancy Byrd Turner