In the coastal Massachusetts town of Manchester-By-the-Sea, there is a small bookstore called Manchester By the Book. Around the shop are local coffee stores, a small market, and a white New England church at the corner. The ocean hugs the back of the store, and the distinct smells of fish and seaweed lightly waft in the sidewalk by the door. As soon as you enter the shop, you are greeted by the smell of ancient pages, and the owner catches your eye behind the stacks of books lining his checkout counter as he quietly reads and chats with his customers.
If you step through these doors, you have just entered the best bookstore I have ever encountered. I have traveled a fair amount in my life thus far, always checking out the local libraries and even studying within the grand halls of Oxford's Bodleian. I have browsed through New York City's Strand Bookstore, famous for its size and collection. I have wandered into the basement of city shops to find even the most obscure used bookstore in its premises. Yet in all my wanderings, I have never been to a better place than Manchester by the Book.
Mark Stolle, the owner of the bookstore, has hand-picked every single item on his shelves. He may not have read every book he sells, but he knows of all of them and can spout off a tidbit of information on each author. The store is so stuffed that books have piled up into heaps on the floor and are overflowing in the shelving, but every single book is of a high caliber. I have watched him first-hand look through books customers try to sell to him and turn them away because they do not meet his standards.
Because he is nestled in this historic New England town, he has gathered an amazing collection of First Edition copies of classics. One treasured moment in the store for me was holding in my hands a First Edition copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. To this day, I still kick myself for not snatching it up! Not all is lost, however, as I have acquired a First Edition copy of A Portrait of a Lady and beautiful, leather-bound early editions of Heart of Darkness and Dostoevsky's diaries. Stolle has made himself known in the area, so he is frequently called to local homes to scan their bookshelves and discover these treasures. He doesn't even need to go to auctions anymore, as he has developed a reputable clientele at this point. There are always treasured copies in his store, I guarantee it.
Although the setting and quality of the books are remarkable on their own, the real treasure is Stolle himself. He is incredibly well-read, and I am awed by his knowledge at every visit. However, his spirit is amazingly humble without even a hint of pretension in his voice. If you give him the slightest window, he will happily engage in literary dialogue. He gently probes your knowledge and develops a sense of the kind of books that appeal to you. I am very conscious of my literary taste when I'm around him, and though he seeks it without judgment, I can't help sensing that he is testing me. What does this girl like to read? Is she really the right customer for this store? Although I frequently have to say, "No, I've not read that one" and "Actually, I've never even heard of that author," I think I have passed his test because he envelops me in warmth and discussion. When I purchased Dostoevsky's diaries, he said with a silent nod of approval, "I am glad to see these going to a good home."
If you visit frequently enough, Stolle recognizes you and eagerly shows off his latest acquisitions. He knows that I love the First Editions and offers them for me to comb through even when he knows I can't afford to buy them. And if you give him an opening to talk about his life, you may find out some incredible personal history. Stolle was personal friends with John Updike, so much so that Updike actually bequeathed his personal library to Stolle in his will upon his death. But in all his humility, you would never guess that he made such a connection with the famously introverted author.
I have just stepped away from this wonderful store, visiting it for the first time in about a year. I no longer live in Massachusetts, though days like today motivate me to move back soon. On this visit, Stolle was so caught up in our conversation that he gifted me with two additional books simply because he was eager for me to read them. I tried to pay for them, but he pushed it away and said, "That's just the kind of store this is."
Precisely. That is just the kind of store it is. If any of you have even the slightest appreciate for quality literature, you must make a pilgrimage to this bookstore. You can check out its website at manchesterbythebook.com but it doesn't even begin to capture the treasure you will discover inside. Do yourself a favor and come to this bookstore. Talk to Stolle and take his reading advice. It will be well worth your time.