Live Free or Die: A Book Dealer’s Travels in New Hampshire


When I was younger and in the throes of child-rearing, my typical response to most requests quickly degenerated into, “Do what you want…you will anyway.” I have mellowed a bit in middle age, and I now say, “You are your own chairman,” or, when corrected by my wife, “You are your own chairperson.” This expression comes from my college days in the late 1960s. Group dynamics was all the rage and the psychology professors would begin each seminar session by stating, “Before the class begins, close you eyes and think about what you want to get from this class, and what you want to give to this class. Remember, you are your own chairman.”

In mid-January we spent a long weekend in New Hampshire, where the populace has extended “You are your own chairperson” even further through their motto “Live Free or Die.” My wife is an avid Nordic skier, so we have a tradition of spending Martin Luther King weekend up in New England. She bundles up and braves the cold, while I crank up the car and check out the used bookstores. In the past we usually went up to Stowe, Vermont, but this year the snow was supposed to be better in the White Mountains, and some cousins who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts are always bragging about their great book finds up in the land of the free, so we left at the crack of dawn on Friday morning and headed up to Jackson, New Hampshire. It was foggy and raining on Long Island, but seven and a half hours of a great audio book later (Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls) we arrived in a snow covered winter wonderland.


Snow-clad New Hampshire

It had been at least twenty years since I was in New Hampshire. At the time, my brother lived up there in a town so small that even if you were looking for it, it was easy to miss, as the center consisted of a ten by ten foot cottage that was the town hall, post office and general store. Back then, the country gentry all lived in Vermont and this part of New England was like the Wild West. I was surprised by how much things had changed since then. We arrived at a beautiful old country inn (Thorn Hill Inn and Spa) in a town that looked like a Norman Rockwell Christmas card. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and an English Tea laid out for guests, with fresh baked scones, cakes and cookies, and bowls of clotted cream and fruits and jams, comparable to what one is served at Fortnum and Mason in London.

After we warmed ourselves with tea and I ate one too many scones, we received a guided tour of the premises. There was a spa with saunas and massage rooms, an outdoor hot tub, even a cozy library with a large selection of interesting novels by local authors. I might have traded some of my own books for a signed copy or two, but all of the free end papers had large “Property of” stampings. The biggest surprise was their enormous wine cellars. They had over 5000 different wines. Twenty years ago the liquor stores were all state-owned and you had a choice of Boone’s Farm, Gallo Burgundy, or the slightly classier Mateus rosé which I always pronounced Ma-toos, until I learned in Portugal that the proper pronunciation is Ma-TAE-us.

It was almost dusk and too late for outdoor activity or book scouting, so we explored the number two tourist attraction in that part of New Hampshire which are the outlet shops in North Conway. After two hours of watching the chairwoman try on clothing, the chairman was hungry, so we had dinner at an elegant restaurant in town. Its claim to fame is preparing food at your table. I passed on the Caesar salad with freshly made dressing because although they claimed to briefly scald the egg shells before cracking them, I still considered the egg yolks to be raw. I was more interested in the Bananas Foster. Every fifteen minutes one of the waiters would wheel a cart into the dining room with great aplomb and make the famous dessert for another table. I watched with great interest and kept asking the waiters questions about the process. When it came time for dessert, the waiter remarked that he had a surprise for us. A diner at another table had pre-ordered the dessert for us and paid for it. Maybe he thought I was not enough of my own chairman to order it for myself, or maybe he just admired the interest I took in the procedures, but it was a welcome surprise and the dessert was superb.

Saturday was to be my major book buying day. I dropped my wife at the nearby cross country ski center and headed down to Northwood, which was a longer drive than I expected, due to the fact that there are no real highways in Eastern New Hampshire. For many years the taxes were very low, so I guess there was little money for road construction. This was only a few days after the New Hampshire primary, but the only political signs I saw along the road were for Ron Paul. You would never guess who won the primaries.

Northwood Old Books was well worth the drive, a large shop crammed with interesting titles on all subjects. I purchased a large carton of books, and the clerk recommended that I visit the owner’s other, larger shop, about an hour’s drive due west in Henniker.

On the way I saw a sign that said “Old Books and Furniture,” so I slowed down and pulled in. It was a large shop filled with paperback books and used furniture. I asked the proprietor if she had any hardcover books, and she pointed to a few very common former bestsellers along the top shelves of the bookcases. “I’d have more but they don’t sell,” she told me. I apologized and told her I was only interested in literary hardcover books. I left a bit amazed that one could make a living selling used romance and popular fiction paperbacks. Maybe she made more money on the furniture.

I arrived in Henniker right on schedule, and before I reached my destination I saw a sign for an old book barn. This barn had been highly recommended to me by the cousins, so I made another detour and drove up into the parking lot. This, too, turned out to be a disappointment. I would call it “The Leaky Book Barn” since most of the books had a substantial amount of water damage and were in terrible condition. I bought one signed Russell Banks to see if I could salvage it, but despite my best efforts, it still looks pretty warped and I am hesitant to list it on-line.

Old Number Six Book Depot in Henniker is another wonderful old shop that one could easily spend a day browsing in. It has a broad selection of reasonably priced books in all categories, and again I left with a large carton of treasures, mostly for re-sale. I had a long chat with Mr. Morrison, the owner, who knows several of the older booksellers on Long Island from book fairs.


Joe in his true element—the Greenwich Village Book Fair

It was a slow two hour trip back up to Jackson, and I wanted to pick my wife up before the ski center closed and arrive at the Inn in time for their marvelous tea, so I headed north again on the two lane roads enjoying the scenery. I saw numerous signs that warned of moose and bear crossings, but that day there wasn’t a moose or a bear in sight.

After a few too many fresh baked scones and cookies, it was time to try the hot tub. I have always been curious about outdoor hot tubs in winter. Does your head stay warm in the cold air, because of the steam? If you stay in long enough are you warm when you jump out into the cold? I learned that your face does stay warm from the steam, but in 16 degree weather, if you have a big head like I do, you get icicles on top of your head, and when you step out you stay warm for about ten seconds, just long enough to throw a robe on and run inside.

By now, I had had enough of the frigid temperatures, so we spent the evening at the Inn, eating dinner in the elegant candlelit dining room, and reading in the lounge in front of the roaring fire. There were even such modern amenities as wireless internet in the lobby, so I was able to take out my laptop and check my e-mail for book orders, which were trickling in.

Sunday was to be devoted to the new bookstores in the North Conway area, of which there were three. My first stop was the one independent bookshop in town, as these shops are usually a good source of signed books by local authors. Immediately upon entering I saw a stack of signed copies of the latest book by the wonderful regional novelist, Howard Frank Mosher, who lives only a few hours away across the Vermont border. To my dismay they were all second printings. There were some unsigned first editions on the fiction shelves, but I figured I could buy an unsigned one much cheaper in New York, where he is not nearly as popular or well-known. I did manage to pick up a few interesting items, including a signed collection of nature essays, and a heavily discounted book about Vermont fiction writers (after all this was New Hampshire).

My next stop was the local Borders, the only chain bookstore in the region, but unlike any other Borders I have ever visited. The front third of the store was all remainders, and you had to wade through them to get to the new books. I had a 40% off on any one item coupon that I had received via e-mail, which when coupled with no sales tax is a substantial discount, but the selection of books was so small I had trouble finding anything.

My third stop was a remainder outlet tucked away in the back of the large outlet mall in North Conway. The store was the size of a small supermarket with a large fiction section and I found a number of nice, pristine first edition remainders without that nasty remainder slash on the bottom edge.


Bridge over untroubled waters

Since I had exhausted the supply of local bookshops with a few hours to spare before I had to pick up my wife at the slopes, I had some time to don a pair of snowshoes and enjoy this winter wonderland for myself. The trail was snow covered and empty. I passed a single snowshoer on my two hour trek, so I enjoyed the tranquility and beauty of the snow covered white birch and pine trees until it was time to return to the ski center. As I tromped through the woods, I thought to myself this must be what they mean by “Live Free”…a long slow drive on a two lane country road, a quiet walk in an empty wood, a shopkeeper who can make a living selling used paperbacks, or one who can afford a large inexpensive space to sell used books. It was nice, but it was also time to take off my rustic ski cap and go back to being simply my own chairman. I already missed the highways, the crowded streets, and the energy of urban life.

In minutes I removed my snowshoes, met up with my wife and headed down the mountains to my brother’s house in Massachusetts, where he lives in a slightly bigger town (the town hall, post office and general store are actually three separate buildings) in time to watch the Giants win the playoff game. We celebrated Martin Luther King Day with most other Americans, instead of Civil Rights Day as they call it up there in the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire.

Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY and can be contacted at http://www.mostlyusefulfictions.com.

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