In New York City, a metropolis of some eight or nine million people, it’s inevitable that one day soon enough, after hopping subways and crossing streets, you’ll run into the one person you didn’t want to see again. It’ll happen, just give it enough damn time. This phenomenon is so reliable that when the prospect came up to hunt bookshops in the small town of Greenwich in upstate New York, a dot on the map consisting of four-thousand people or so, I hesitated. You see, that’s where I lived back when I was hitched, avowed, married, lifetimes ago, fifteen different James Duncans ago, and I figured that going back all these years later just to poke my nose into a bookstore would be like rolling those big Manhattan dice on a miniature scale.
When Michael Stipe tells you not to go back to Rockville, you goddamn listen.
It wasn’t all bad, that time and that town, and thinking of it gives me a strange mix of nostalgia and uncertainty, as if I’m looking back on a surreal half-remembered dream. This is the town, after all, I drove into that first afternoon to find a mass of townsfolk playing a game called Cow Plop Bingo in a field near the center of town. This game consists of spraying white lines across a field creating a checkerboard of sorts, and each square gets a number. People take bets on certain numbers and then walk a cow through the field. When the cow’s “plop” falls into a lucky square, a winner is declared.
Don’t go back to Rockville indeed.
But the town also has quaint cafes, picturesque streets, and from what I’m told nowadays, an amazing used bookshop hidden in a barn on the outskirts of town. Cow Plop Bingo be damned, I wanted to see it for myself.
The first leg of the trek was a straight shot north to Saratoga Springs, which was the closest town to Greenwich that held any entertainment value for a young married couple back in those faraway days. It’s also where the summer season sees a huge influx of tourists for the horse track, the casino, big name concerts at the park, and downtown shopping and restaurants. None of it interested me save for the shopping, and a very specific brand of shopping at that.
Just off the main drag where the well-heeled tourists roam and play, there’s a little bookshop called Lyrical Ballad. It appears tiny at first, maybe even a bit musty and dusty, but once you begin to explore and work your way to the back of the first room, past the old bank vault door, you’ll find a long, twisting, roaming catacombs brimming with used books.
One end of the hall, just past that bank vault door, curls into a darkened recess that looks as if it might keep going and going. The other end drops you off into another series of rooms that are a little more organized by book type. You’ll find rooms of poetry, rooms of hardback fiction, mass market fiction, history books about American wars and presidents, sections with westerns and crime, and so much more.
The sheer volume of books here is just unbelievable, and you could very well spend the better part of a day pouring through the deepest halls, some of which contain books on Roman and Greek history, South American cultures, Shakespeare and other playwrights, rooms full of belles-lettres, memoirs, biographies, essays, art, more paintings and prints, maps and photographs, some framed and some just in plastic sheeting. It goes on and on until you decide to stop and go back. I’m entirely convinced this shop would keep going if you were willing, but after a couple of hours I gave in.
If you survive that shop, I suggest heading back up to the main strip to one of the many excellent cafes or coffee shops to rejuvenate (I suggest the Mexican restaurant there for a margarita, but that’s my solution to everything) and then bring yourself back to the modern era with a bookshop that has a little more verve and energy.
Northshire Bookstore may appear to be a small shop from the sidewalk, but it’s a lot bigger than expected and has diversity, discounts, and fun extras. Just inside the door, you’ll find a half-off table to the left, all recent titles, alongside other tables and displays of gifts and Saratoga-themed souvenirs. To the right of the door are the walls and tables of new releases, staff selections, and big bestsellers, along with more gifts and shelves of magazines and literary journals—always nice to see!
As you move back there are large sections for local interest and history, travel and language books, biography, current events, a clothing section, art/film/theater titles, etc. Plenty to look at, lots to take in. Further back you hit the large fiction areas in the rear. This is where I typically head, as they have a plenty of mystery/crime books and walls of general fiction, and each area has discounted titles mixed in and in their own displays.
Upstairs is mainly children’s books, and there are a TON of them, with displays and shelves that have titles for any age and style, from picture books, early readers, YA, and all manner of youth- and education-focused nonfiction. They have a big model train set that pulled me in for a while too. Your kids will have a lot of fun exploring the upstairs while you roam the rest of the store.
This shop wasn’t there in my “old days,” but plenty else in the area was. As I drove east into the flatlands beyond Saratoga, I saw many a house, a farm stand, a school, an intersection that looked about what I remembered it to be, but not exactly. Our memories are imprecise things and I began to wonder if I would recall the way there using the shortcuts and back roads I used to know by heart. As luck had it, I did, with my REM road mix guiding me past wheatfields and floaters on the power lines so small planes don’t get tangled up. After a few more twists and jangling tunes, I coasted into Greenwich with half a grin and half a cautionary eye.
Funny enough, I wasn’t in town two minutes before stopping for gas and running smack into a couple my ex knew well back in the day, plus their very cute child. I apologized, holding the door of the gas station for them, and it appeared neither remembered my face. Okay by me. They were a kind and fun couple, but I wasn’t there for small talk. Show me the books.
And damn were there ever books. Just not in town, not even close to town. Owl Pen Books is in a big red barn at the end of a dirt road about fifteen minutes northeast of Greenwich, winding through farm country and forest. But if you make it, you’ll be delighted in what you find.
The books are all used and there’s a wide array of styles, subjects, and quality, from well-worn classics to near-pristine paperbacks to vintage antique titles that will look just as gorgeous on your shelves as you’re imagining. The barn was a bit dusty, but in a fun, adventurous way. You’re going to get lost in these stacks, and there’s so much to look through. There was an older poetry section comprised of early-twentieth century titles, and side rooms with books covering trivia, coins, medicine, arctic tales, nature and bees, true crime, and antique collections of Bronte, Melville, Milton, and the like. Beyond that were big tables and shelves full of more current fiction offerings, mostly paperbacks, and some large mystery and crime sections too.
I highly recommend you build a trip to Owl Pen Books into a larger book hunting trek, because it’s pretty far out, but if you do manage to swing by, you won’t regret it. Just keep that GPS handy, because the roads between Greenwich and Cambridge won’t unknot themselves on your account. Keep heading east, then south a bit, and you’ll make your way into the next town, and to the next shop—Battenkill Books.
Not much in Cambridge had changed since my time, but this quaint and clean bookshop was definitely new to me. Full of bestsellers, trinkets, and discounts, it will make any bookworm happy for having trekked through forests and farmland to get there.
There were tables and aisles of fiction and staff selections, and it’s charm made up for the occasional lack of volume (poetry and fantasy, for example, were a tad slight). The titles available were of the big names and recent hits you’d want and expect. The aisles were also movable, giving the shop a lot of room to play with for events and readings, which is fantastic for a small town shop like that. There’s a side room with all manner of children’s books for younger readers, with painted walls and seating for tykes to enjoy.
The real treat was in the very back of the shop, where there were shelves of deeply discounted books, some used, some new, all at prices that will get your heart beating faster. I found one I wanted for a while, The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman, JR, for just $3. There are plenty of steals back there for both adults and kids, so make sure you check that out.
All in all, this shop covers all the bases and has plenty to offer any visitor. Grab a bag, fill up, and grab a coffee or a treat at the bakery down the street. It’s a unique little town and well worth the visit.
James Duncan is a poet, writer, and the editor of Hobo Camp Review. He also review independent bookshops as The Bookshop Hunter. His books include We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine (Unknown Press), Dead City Jazz (Epic Rites Press), Berlin (Maverick Duck Press), and What Lies In Wait (Hobo Camp Press), among other collections of poetry and fiction. Novels and new columns are coming soon!