Vincent McCaffrey spent three decades selling books on Boston’s Newbury Street. His shop, Avenue Victor Hugo Books, became famous in the city. After it closed, he retailed his vast collection of used books online.
Last year, Vincent and his wife packed it all up, including tens-of-thousands of volumes, and moved to the decidedly less urban environment of Lee, New Hampshire.
The one-time fixture between Tower Records and Urban Outfitters is now housed in a small quintessential barn in the center of the small town, about ten minutes or so from the campus of UNH.
It’s open just two days a week to the public – Fridays and Saturdays. But Vincent agreed to let me see the place on an off day.
The smell of long-aged wood and vintage books surrounds me as I step in. So do the stacks and shelves. Vincent says he has over 20,000 books in the shop now. The roof of the barn is just eight feet high.
“But in our old shop in Boston the ceilings were over 12 feet high and so we just went up and used ladders,” Vincent said.
Vincent also says he thought they would be in that Boston shop for only three years, but they ended up staying for almost 30. Rising rental prices eventually forced the store out and into a nearby warehouse.
In 2018, Vincent and his wife accepted an invitation to move north.
Their daughter and son-in-law offered a well-cared for barn on their property to become the new retail outlet. In exchange, they take turns helping to care for their grandchildren.
Both still attend to customer’s requests on-line, but in Lee, they’ve once again opened the doors to those eager to peruse the shelves in person, and find something interesting from the past.
One of the store’s specialties is history.
“To a great degree, some of our greatest literature is in the area of history,” Vincent said.
He says it’s easy to sit down with a book like Early American Inns and Taverns, and find yourself going down the rabbit hole.
You can get lost in the shelves of books, for sure. And at one end of the barn, you could spend hours culling through neatly-bound copies of magazines and periodicals dating back to the 19th century.
“A typical American family got half a dozen magazines,” Vincent said. “So one week it was Harpers. Another week it was Atlantic. Century magazine is up there.”
Vincent says you can sit down with Century and read the Civil War over again, not by historians, but by the soldiers who fought it.
“They wrote these articles about their experiences, and it’s just terrific,” Vincent said.
I asked Vincent what has changed after decades of running a bookstore, both in Boston and here in rural New Hampshire.
“Although many booksellers love what they do and try very hard, most booksellers just know what is the immediate offering,” Vincent said. “And that’s not good, because bookselling has been for more than 500 years booksellers knowing about books in a much deeper way.”
At the same time, Vincent tells me he doesn’t like the elitist attitude of a bookseller that would look down at customers’ choices. People like what they like, he says, and that can be a gateway to more reading.
“I’m not a fan of Stephen King’s, but I have lots of Stephen King on the shelf because people like Stephen King,” Vincent said. “At least they’re going to be exposed to other idea, and new thoughts and looking at the world around them.”
Those customers, whether they are looking for something cotemporary or classic, often come from near-by UNH and the local neighborhood.
But clientele from years past still come to Victor Avenue Books.
“I think about 50 old customers from the old store have shown up in the past couple of weeks,” Vincent said. “The magic of a bookshop is the browse. You basically get in to looking at other things close by and up above and down below in between… and all of a sudden you’ve discovered something… and your life is a little broader.”