On the corner of George Bennett and Lee Hill Road in Lee, there sits a little red building that used to be a barn. Where once it might’ve been used for storing tools, now it’s a treasure trove of used books of all genres. This is the new home of Avenue Victor Hugo, a bookstore once awarded “Best Used Bookstore” by “Boston Magazine”.
Avenue Victor Hugo was once based on Newbury Street in Boston. During its 30 years there, the store became a favorite of local bibliophiles. It hosted three magazines, “Fiction,” “Galileo” and “Galaxy” and held over a 100,000 used books. Rising rent caused the store owner, Vincent McCaffrey, to have to shutter in 2004.
In the 14 years between the old shop closing and the new location opening, the store operated out of a warehouse in Abington, Massachusetts, and was open for online purchases only, limiting the kind of connection one gets from discovering a new favorite.
“I guess it’s my Irish heritage, but I like to talk to people,” McCaffrey said. “I like one-on-one. I have no facility for public speaking but for talking to individuals and learning about people – that’s fun. I get a kick out of that. I missed talking about books to people. I really don’t know very much and the little that I do know is about books, primarily. So being able to talk about the thing I know, it’s fun to do.”
The store was given a new life in the world of brick and mortar stores when McCaffrey’s daughter and son-in-law bought a new house in Lee which included a small barn that had just enough room for a shop on its splotch of land. The store is operated by McCaffrey, McCaffrey’s wife Thais, and social media is ran by son-in-law, Cord Blomquist.
The store is host to 20,000 books, in all genres imaginable, from westerns to science fiction to literary criticism and even nature field guides. The biggest categories offered are history and fiction, along with a very wide selection of magazines. There’s also an extensive selection of political books offered.
“I carry all kinds of political stuff here, authors who carry political views almost opposite to mine,” said McCaffrey. “But I carry them because one thing you learn is that you’re not the smartest person and there are things to learn from all kinds of people. So you carry other opinions, that are not your own, because you learn from that, not because they’re right or because you’re right but because you learn from that. It’s a process and it’s ongoing.”
If the amount of books doesn’t make you want to explore right away, then perhaps the decor will. In some respects, walking through the shop is like looking through an eclectic museum. There are old typewriters and two smaller printing presses (one of McCaffrey’s favored items) and even an indenture from 1629 written on a sheep skin for someone bound to become a servant. The walls splayed with shelves are covered by various artistic prints, newspaper clippings and printed-out phrases like “Shoes for the mind – Books for every size.”
Another important aspect of the shop is the shelves the books sit on. Some were made by McCaffrey himself. Others were made by inventor Timothy Harkness; these shelves are held with a fantail joint, allowing the pieces to slot together.
McCaffrey had known he was interested in selling books when he was young, being both fond of books and old media.
“As I explained to somebody once, a part of getting involved in books was an experience with actual physical books,” McCaffrey said. “But that was coupled with the fact that I was already an addict watching old movies. I’m talking old movies from the 30s, even silent movies. I grew up in New York and these were available on television and I was a very poor student; so I didn’t do my homework, I stayed up all night and watched old movies and then slept through my classes during the day. It was horrible.”
Things began to come together once he attended Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro, Vermont. There, he wrote a thesis on bookselling and came up with the plans for the perfect bookstore.
“I was infected,” McCaffrey said. “I went out and talked to a whole bunch of booksellers. I started looking at bookstores differently and was asking how does this work and how does that work. I briefly had a job at a bookstore in Brattleboro and the experience made it inevitable.”
McCaffrey then got a pushcart, which he used to sell books on the street alongside other Boston street hawkers of the early 70s. The pushcart operated for three years before McCaffrey found the space at Newbury Street. The store opened in 1975, originally selling a mix of new books before gradually switching to being a majority-used store. Adaptability, McCaffrey said, is critical.
“There’s new things to do, and new things to learn,” McCaffrey said. “And if you do what everybody else has been doing in the past, you’re not going to get ahead anyway. You have to think original thoughts and experiment and find new ways to do things. This is a process. If you’re lucky to maintain your enthusiasm, you can do it for the rest of your life.”
The new location was a change itself. The store went from a rather large spot on a busy street in a large city where there was seldom any downtime to a small barn on a quiet street. The store went from needing multiple employees to being able to be handled by the family. These changes aren’t necessarily the easiest to adapt to, but to McCaffrey, who wanted a quieter store, the changes were welcome.
“I think it’s a matter of courage,” McCaffrey said. “But it’s also a matter of something you pick up along the way. You just keep doing it and work hard at it. There’s nothing easy about doing what you want to do. I mean, it’s not like by doing this, I picked up an easy thing to do. This is a lot of work. I have a bad back from hauling around boxes all the time, you know?”
Avenue Victor Hugo is one of the few bookstores in Lee and its presence there can only help the town. However, is being a benefit an important thing for a store?
“I’m not trying to be of benefit,” McCaffrey said with a laugh. “That’s not my purpose. My purpose is to try to find a way to make a living selling the books that I love and that’s a totally selfish thing.”
But right before he said this, a customer came up with questions for him and finished the conversation by thanking him for opening the store in their town. It seemed the steady stream of people starting to come in an hour after opening wasn’t going to relent anytime soon. It may not have been meant as a benefit, but it seems the local community may think of it as one.
Located about 10 minutes from University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus, Avenue Victor Hugo on 1 Lee Hill Rd. is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.