Hammers, Nails, Baling Wire, and…Books?

When I first came to Eastport, Maine, I didn’t think of the local hardware store as a bookselling opportunity. But proprietor Chris Brown had other ideas. He’s descended from Samuel Bartlett Wadsworth (1791-1874), who was uncle to Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and was also the founder in 1818 of S.L. Wadworth & Son, a ship’s chandlery originally located on Eastport’s Central Wharf.

In those days, Wadsworth’s sold all the stuff ships needed: whale oil, hemp, oakum, lanterns, charts, marlinspikes…the list went on and on. The business flourished, and so did Eastport, becoming by the turn of the century among the busiest shipping ports in the U.S. But on Groundhog Day in 1976, a Canadian weather system called the Saskatchewan Screamer combined with a US front to form a gale that howled up the East Coast. After sending a tidal surge up the Penobscot — in Bangor the water rose 12 feet in 15 minutes, flooding the downtown — it blew Wadsworths and the wharf it stood on into Passamaquoddy Bay.

Possibly taking a cue from the third little pig in the children’s story, the business reopened in a brick building on Water Street soon after the storm. Today, it still offers some fishing and boating gear (but no whale oil), as well as hardware items, including most of the tools and supplies used by my series heroine, Jake Tiptree, in the Home Repair is Homicide series.

And — the store sells books! Because Chris isn’t just a hardware guy; he’s a marketing genius. He turns the store into a pirate’s den for the annual Pirate Festival (cutlasses, anyone?), for instance, and he figured out that mystery novels set in Eastport would be catnip to locals and visitors alike; that’s why he devoted nearly half his window-display space to them, stocked them like crazy, even invented promotional items ranging from snazzy red plastic toolboxes to baseball caps with hammers and the Home Repair is Homicide logo sewn onto them.

Today, Wadsworths has sold thousands (!) of my books, including the newest one, Dead Level, which just came out in paperback this past Wednesday. And listen, nothing against real bookstores or anything. I love ’em, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit some that are so wonderful, it was all I could do not to just lie down on the floor and wallow. (Yes, Downtown Books of Asheville, NC, I do mean you!)

But when it comes to the perfect sales setting for books about home repair and homicide, what’s better than a real hardware store? Paint, putty, 3-in-1 oil, nails, sandpaper, chisels, saw blades, varnish…

And books. An unlikely combination, maybe, but in Eastport — three hours from Bangor, light-years from anywhere else — it makes perfect sense.

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One Response to Hammers, Nails, Baling Wire, and…Books?

  1. Barb Ross says:

    We actually sell the Level Best Books short story collections through a hardware store in Medford, MA. The owner keeps them on the counter and handsells the books and ordered more this year than last.

    Maybe as towns lose bookstores, we can hope for a return to the old general or dry goods store?

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