Legendary Boston bookstore reopens in N.H. barn
LEE, N.H. (AP) — When Avenue Victor Hugo Books met the end of its nearly 30-year run on Boston’s Newbury Street, the building’s monthly rent had been raised from $12,000 to $25,000, and Diesel Jeans was slated to move in.
That was 2004. The redolent, woody fragrance of cedar and oak, emanating from millions of crusty pages in a dusty atmosphere — held dearly by those who valued the space as a literary haven — faded away.
Fifteen years later, the store is newly located in a bucolic red barn in Lee, beside a white farmhouse where owner Vincent McCaffrey now lives with his wife, Thais Coburn, and their daughter and son-in-law. After moving to Lee three years ago, McCaffrey and Colburn decided to revive the erudite escape.
It’s a reincarnation of the Back Bay shop, with the same wistfulness and feeling of being homesick, yet not knowing what for. But in New Hampshire, the barn is rent-free and has its own parking. There’s also little-to-no traffic on the quiet country road.
Avenue Victor Hugo opened in 1975, following McCaffrey’s ventures selling books from a pushcart and working as a desk clerk at a city hotel. He’d written his college thesis on bookselling. In Boston, the bookstore held more than a quarter-million magazines and 150,000 used books. It was awarded “best used bookstore” by Boston Magazine multiple times, and given several other nods, including “most funky bookstore.”
McCaffrey calls himself a curmudgeon, and says if there was a “more flamboyant word” for nostalgic, that would describe him perfectly. He doesn’t agree with the way writing is taught in today’s academia; how adjectives and adverbs are discouraged, to make way for conciseness and exactitude. His store preserves what was — an allowance of expression.
Literature is meant to “catch the soul of what’s going on,” McCaffrey said, “not be something a computer could write.”
A handwritten note on a wooden beam in the shop says, “Next time you read, try a book.”
“I don’t want to be living in the past, but all of these books have the past in them,” McCaffrey said, as his fingers turned the pages of an American Mercury magazine from 1924, a “zeitgeist” of the roaring ’20s.
He picked up a poetry collection penned by Walter de la Mare, an English writer who lived from 1873 to 1956. “Tell me, who reads him anymore?” McCaffrey exclaimed. “He’s forgotten now. He once inspired a lot of people.”
The name of the shop — Avenue Victor Hugo — is a “triangulation of various little things,” McCaffrey said, noting Fifth Avenue in Paris, Shakespeare and Company on its Left Bank, and Hugo as an “exemplar” of a writer.
During its years at 339 Newbury St., the store played host to Fiction, Galileo and Galaxy magazines, all published by McCaffrey, who is also a novelist himself.
“Newbury Street was hot, and the landlord could get $25,000 for that space, and he did,” McCaffrey said, laughing that he and his wife used to be able to afford a rental on Beacon Hill. “So, boom, we were out.”
Ironically, McCaffrey has a framed copy of the 2004 Boston Globe article announcing their closing. It’s headlined, “The end.”
The store is catalogued online, and after closing the Boston store, the business went completely mail order and operated out of a warehouse in Abington, Massachusetts.
Avenue Victor Hugo quietly opened at its Lee location last September, but has since operated under the radar — until recently, when McCaffrey’s son-in-law, Cord Blomquist, set up some social media accounts for the store.
“The madness of being a bookseller is you keep a lot of stuff,” McCaffrey said. “If I buy 10 books this month, I’ll sell probably one or two by next month.”
There are old maps of New England, Central America, Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as vintage postcards, Egyptian head bookends and a marble statue of a Greek god next to a 1950s radio.
McCaffrey points to an original 1629 indenture composed for a man set to become a servant, written on sheepskin gut. The shop might as well be a history museum of sorts, not only for its contents, but for the mind of its owner, as well.
McCaffrey holds up a 1883 copy of Century Magazine, which featured major writers from the period, addressed everything from growing flowers to architecture, and published personal accounts of Civil War soldiers.
“This came out every week, and the middle class was exposed to this stuff on a daily basis,” McCaffrey said. “It was thinking. People had wonderful arguments in bars over the issues.”
The shop’s two biggest categories are fiction and history, as well as collectible magazines including Harper’s, Atlantic, Life, Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, Playbill, Punch, Theatre Arts, and hundreds of others.
“This is a thing that’s missing today,” Blomquist said of the shop, while standing under its wide ceiling beams.
By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR, Fosters Daily Democrat
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