“Did I lock the car?”
Sean stops short on the sidewalk. We’d left our rented Camaro convertible a block behind us parallel parked on a hill leading into the heart of Camden. My eyes flash back uphill.
”Eh,” he swats the air with a familiar dismissive wave, “we’re in Maine.”
This is exactly the sort of free thinking, come what may, fly by the seat of our pants attitude that has defined our New England vacation. I’d thought about creating an itinerary - planned for weeks to plan one - but couldn’t get motivated, then rubber met tarmac at Boston Logan.
Premise: Boston to Portland to Rockland then reverse via convertible on Hwy1.
Conclusion: wind in our hair and musical stylings ranging from Sinatra to Guns n Roses punctuated by declarations of love for salt pine air, Maine coastal villages, cedar shake siding, seagulls, lobster. A different town each day x 5 days; so much movement yet so little exercise.
Childless and aimless, upon arrival we found our bearings by triangulation - bookshop, coffeeshop, restaurant/bar - and proceeded to eat, drink and read our way up the east coast.
On this day we’d bypassed Rockland to investigate Camden, Maine on account of Aunt Kat. It’s one of, if not her favorite place and hey, we had nowhere to be. 3pm and having already purchased five books we continued downhill to a restaurant on the harbor called Hoxbill and two open seats at the bar. Feeling neither hunger nor thirst we ordered wine, a raspberry mojito and Thai lemongrass wings at the suggestion of our bartender, Zoe.
“Zoe, do you think we should move here?” I ask halfway through my mojito and drunk on sea air. We had her undivided attention.
“Maybe. Tell me your story.”
We tell her...blah, blah, Airstream, blah, blah, blah. She calls us a power couple. I politely correct her - former power couple.
“What do you like?” she asks.
“Small towns, reading, wine.”
“You should check out Belfast. It’s a small town, not far. I grew up there.”
A sign - my grandma was born in Belfast, Ireland.
“You should go to Bella’s Books. For dinner - do you like Thai?”
We nod; evidence: a plate of chicken bones.
“There’s a good restaurant. I can’t remember the name but they have delicious lobster pad thai. Don’t go to Nautilus.” I’m furiously scribbling all this in a planner I bought back home at the Dollar Store. It’s full of notes about upcoming Cub Scout meetings, soccer games, riding lessons, library volunteer shifts, back to school nights, and feels other worldly in my hands. Sean wants to be sure I’m getting it all down. I am.
“So, why’d you move away?” I ask. “I mean, if it’s not too personal.”
“Well, you can only see the same 18 people so many times.” To some this would be a deterrent.
“Have you ever seen Gilmore Girls - is it like that? Is there a gazebo?”
“Yes and yes.”
“Sounds perfect.” We pay our tab and head for the Camaro. It’s still there.
Belfast turns out to be a quintessential coastal town with charming shops, a clock tower and sweeping water views. We walk by a realty office and, as is our custom, pause to consider the properties displayed in the window.
“Oh my gosh. Sean.” I point to a flyer. “The bookshop is for sale.” I live in near constant agony as to whether or not I should open a bookstore. I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail about a million times; never enough. I ravenously devour books about books, written by bookstore owners, set in bookstores and libraries. We gape at each other wide-eyed and make a beeline for Bella Books.
It. Is. Gorgeous. Soft lighting, exposed joists, wide-plank pine floors, eclectic antiques, artful signage, a small bakery, nooks and rooms to lose yourself in. And of course, the books. It’s a dream.
To the man with curly hair and mysterious eyes behind the counter, “Are you the owner?”
“One of.” Enter Gary, a farmer from Massachusetts who fell in love with a poet/bookshop enthusiast. He, the brush; she, Bella, the artist.
“You’re selling the bookstore? Are you moving out of state?” Are you nuts? He feigns offense at my nosiness.
“Yeah, you wanna buy it?”
“Maybe,” I reply confidently. “I’ll take a look upstairs and let you know.” Sean and I take the stairs like two people electrified. Our nerve endings are raw, we’re grinning ear to ear. He knows I want to buy it. And I know that he knows. We look at book covers without seeing them, seeing only the poetry group assembling at a table in the corner, picturing ourselves floating through the spaces talking with customers, smiling, pushing books into their willing, open hands.
We return downstairs to Gary waiting with the realtor’s card in hand.
“Zoe sent us - from Camden, Hoxbill’s. She grew up here.” I tell him.
“I know Zoe. Smart girl”
“I’ve never run a bookshop,” I confess.
“Oh, if I can do it you can. I was a farmer for 35 years. You’re young. You have energy. You can use social media and go big. Do you like books? Can you read people?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“You get to know the people, what they like. They don’t buy Christian books. No romance crap. Books on foraging, yes. They love that.”
“Tell me all the shit parts about it,” I say. “Don’t sugar coat it.”
Customers are walking between us as we stand blocking the entry.
“You get some assholes, for sure. Celebrities come in from time to time though.” I’m in a daze. This is so surreal.
“You wanna know who?” he asks.
“Who’s the pirate guy?”
“Johnny Depp?” Gary nods. “How about Meg Ryan? Tom Hanks?” Guess not.
“I’ve gotten a couple offers already. Two ladies from the Hamptons had the building inspected but they don’t wanna buy the stock. The offer was too low.”
“You mean they don’t want to keep it a bookstore?” Heathens.
“A librarian is interested too.” Well, damn.
“I don’t have $375k. Can I just run the shop for you and rent your house?”
“Maybe.” We’re bantering back and forth at a hundred miles an hour. Did he just say maybe?
I pick up a book from a nearby table. I can’t leave without a book. Essays - something about small town life. I grab it on a whim. Gary knows the author and vouches for it.
“Where should we go to dinner?” I ask. “Zoe mentioned a Thai place.”
“I know Dan. It’s Laotian. His wife is Laotian. But Dan’s the cook. He’s from Maine. Don’t go to Nautilus. You want Delvinos.”
Sean pays for the book.
“Do you have a piece of paper and a pen?” He hands me both. “If the Hamptons ladies and librarian fall through, if you decide not to sell but want someone to run the bookshop for you, call me.”
Booklover. From Ohio. Don’t forget.
I watch as Gary applies a strip of tape to my note and secures it on the inside of the cabinet beneath the register. In my mind this is Serendipity and I’m Kate Beckinsale writing my phone number on a $5 bill, putting it into circulation in the hope that one day it’ll find its way into the hands of John Cusack proving we’re meant to be together. Well, God? Your move.
Delvinos is bustling and on a Wednesday night no less. We squeeze into the two last seats at the bar. I’m forcing myself to sit still but I want to jump and scream and make ridiculously illogical plans. It’s the Airstream all over again. Magic. Fate.
Sean and I ask each other in turns, “What are you thinking?”
“It wouldn’t be the craziest thing we’d ever done,” I say.
The bartender arrives. Perhaps a sage like Zoe. Maybe that’s our thing.
“Do you live here in town?” I ask when she delivers our wine.
“No,” she replies and turns her back to begin on ten waiting drink orders.
“I’ve gotta call someone,” I tell Sean. We’re the blind leading the blind. “Who should I call? Chester!”
Chester is my friend of 15 years. He basically knows my life story and still wants the best for me. Plus he’s a prophet. I explain the situation in three minutes while pacing outside the restaurant. He’s an architect so I lead with the pine floors and joists. He’s stuck in traffic but promises to look up Bella’s when he gets home. I hang up before Sean thinks I’ve abandoned him. Sadly, the realtor hasn’t materialized in the barstool next to mine in my absence.
After dinner we pass by Bella Books for one last look. The sun is setting and the shop glows warm though the windows. A string of lights beckons us from the garden. “This could all be yours,” they seem to say. Gary’s at the counter. He doesn’t feel the weight of my gaze, look up and wave. As we linger a white and orange tabby wanders up, rubbing itself against Sean’s calves. I reach down, trace my fingers around her ginger ears as she mews contentedly. When at last we start back to the car she follows.
“Mew one more time if we should buy the bookstore,” I tell her, half wishing, but she silently slinks off. If only she’d been a white rabbit.
It’s pouring rain when we pull out of town but not so bad that we’re forced to turn back. We do not get a flat tire that requires we check into a quaint roadside inn. We drive to Rockland lost in our private thoughts.
Back in Boston...walking tree-lined streets in dappled sunlight, coffees in hand:
“I can’t imagine this in high heels,” I tell Sean as we navigate hills and valleys of buckled, heaving brick sidewalk.
“I wish I had on better shoes for walking,” he replies, “like Hoka’s.”
“What are those? Never heard of ‘em.”
“I’ll point them out,” he said. “Now you’ll see them everywhere. You’re primed.”