Travel/Leisure: Bookshop bargains

Published in The Heart of New England, June 2005

The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character of Northern New England

Browsing for Bargains Homestead Bookshop
by Lori Hein

I get cheap thrills - grocery bags filled to the brim with used
hardcovers and paperbacks for about $15 a sack - from Robert
Kenney's Homestead Bookshop in Marlborough, New
Hampshire. The shop, which Kenney told me his parents
opened 35 years ago as a "retirement and fun business" and
which Kenney has run since 1981, is paradise for browsers and
bargain-hunters. I've been a regular for 20 years.

Most of Kenney's customers are regulars, although he sees some
of them but once a year. "Our business is primarily out-of-town
or out-of-state repeat business," he said. Homestead has
cultivated a following among travelers passing the Route 101
shop on their way to or from somewhere else. For people whose
reasons for driving through Marlborough are "everything
imaginable," the modest emporium of previously thumbed tomes
is a destination in itself, "something that's high on their list," said
Kenney. He looks forward to visits from his "habitual"
customers, people "who might be driving from the seacoast to
New York state or in the opposite direction, people who have
second homes, or who come home for the holidays or to visit
parents. I see some people the same weekend every year."

I live close enough to Homestead to be able to pay more
frequent visits, and every one is a lovely little trip. I usually
squirrel myself in the corner that holds the shelves of used
paperback classics arranged alphabetically by authors' last
names and priced at a quarter to a buck a pop. At these prices,
there's no economic need for restraint, so I make towering piles
of anything by Wharton or Rand, Welty or Hemingway, Hersey
or Greene that I haven't yet read and gradually move the piles
from the floor to the old desk at the front door that serves as the
checkout area.

Even if I buy 30 new-old books, there will be 30 fresh choices
awaiting me on my next visit because Kenney is constantly
restocking his inventory. One day, I found him surrounded by
cardboard Budweiser cartons filled with books that someone
had just dropped off. He was busy dusting them with a fat brush
he'd pulled from the chest pocket of his denim apron and was
sorting them by category. The boxes held an eclectic array of
titles from "Of Human Bondage" and "Leaves of Grass" to
"Handbook of Amazon Parrots" and "The Boston Massacre." I
asked Kenney how often people come in with books for him to
buy. He smiled. "All the time. Every day. Every minute."

So there's always something for everyone in this cozy little store
that offers the gamut from cheap, dog-eared paperbacks to rare
and precious first editions and out-of-print treasures. Coffee
table books to antique volumes with gilt-embossed covers and
illuminated illustrations. Back issues of popular magazines to the
occasional complete set of the "Hardy Boys."

And Kenney knows where every book is. I've yet to see him
stumped when someone asks for a particular volume. I told him
his ability to put his hands so quickly on a requested title
impressed me. "That's one of the advantages of this shop," he
nodded. "The organization. Everything is categorized and
orderly. We have categories. We may not find it in the first
category we try, but we're able to narrow it down very quickly."

"How many books are in here?" I asked.

"Fifty thousand," he answered without hesitation. I looked
around and considered what it might be like to be surrounded
most of one's waking hours by fifty thousand books. "Do you
love it?" I asked.

Another smile. "Yes." He continued, "I'm involved with the
books seven days a week. Even when I'm not in the store, I'm
often doing something book-related."

Like serving as president of the New Hampshire Antiquarian
Booksellers Association, enjoying biographies, his favorite genre,
or gathering once a month with about a dozen other booklovers
to "read Shakespeare in the afternoon."

Homestead Bookshop at 603-876-4213 or
800-834-3618 toll-free.