Flemington, New Jersey, where my book store is located, is a charming town full of old Victorian homes, many of which are now venues for businesses. One office building is still called “The Old Egg Auction,” from the time when chicken farming was a large part of the agriculture in the area (most of the farms are now covered with McMansions, but that’s another topic). The building housing my store was never a home, but was built sometime in the mid-19th century. The land records go back that far, but we have not been able to determine exactly when the commercial building here was constructed. Pictures at the local historical society show a wood shingled building with narrow front windows. It is now stucco with huge plate glass. This change may have occurred when it became “Fink’s Market,” about which I know a great deal; there are many residents in the area whose families go back for generations, and who stop in to tell me they remember the market.
By the time I bought the used book store Twice Told Tales in 1999, the first floor had been subdivided into two retail establishments, the other half a variety store. In 2003, the variety store closed, and I decided to realize my dream of owning a mystery book store. I took over the entire first floor, connected the two stores internally, and The Moonstone Mystery Bookstore was born. In 2004, the owner of the building decided to sell it. Fearing a huge rent increase from an investor who was interested (remember, these were the boom times), my husband and I decided to become landlords; there are five apartments on the two floors above the store.
So why all this background about a historic, but nondescript building, this week? I had planned to write about a recently released book, Cemetery John, which quite convincingly advances a new theory about the Lindbergh kidnapping case from the 1930s, so local history was on my mind. The Lindbergh case is Flemington’s real claim to fame, and I hope to discuss the book next week. This week, the other side of charming old buildings has reared its head, and I have been preoccupied with it. It began last Saturday, with a barely audible “plunk” into the wastebasket behind my counter. I looked up to see a saturated ceiling tile. This leak was not the first, and I retrieved the buckets and rags kept at the ready, with a grateful thought that at least this time it was not over a bookshelf.
New tenants had moved into an apartment that had been vacant for a few months, and in the course of the next two days, we learned that: the cast iron sewer pipe had cracked; the drainpipe from the sink was hopelessly clogged; and the gas line, which had been turned off, was leaking. Each of these repairs necessitated access from my store. First, I cleared my counter and the areas behind and under it. Then the front half of the original store was draped in tarps. Finally, the gas line leak was located in a wall behind bookshelves, a six-foot section of which had to be cleared and removed. During all this, it was the busiest bookselling week I have had all year. The repairs were finished last evening, and I decided to write this before I start restoring my counter, shelves, and storage area.
Despite the stress of the last seven days, I discovered that I am grateful for several things:
1. Ken, our contractor, who has a great love for this building (at this point, more than I do). His first job after starting his own business many years ago was a repair for the previous owner, and he is the only person who has worked on it for at least twenty years. He is carpenter who advertises “old world craftsmanship with modern tools” and lives up to that billing. Besides his work in restoring historic buildings and remodeling newer ones, he can fix anything. For us, or affection for this building, he delays his now flourishing remodeling business to become a plumber, electrician, handyman, whatever. He has worked on the building for so long that he knows where all the bodies (and wires, pipes, support beams and crawl spaces) are buried. Best of all, because crises only happen at night or on weekends, he responds to emergencies.
2. My ever-patient husband, Bill, who should be first on the list from a gratitude, if not a logical, point of view. He put aside his own work all week to help Ken. Bill is skilled enough in repairs to have done the work, but it definitely required two people, plus Ken’s arsenal of tools. He did discover a new talent as a pipefitter while repairing the gas line, with kudos from the gas company for a job well done. This morning, he left the house early telling me he remembered that one of the light fixtures was dirty from the residue of the blocked drain, and he wanted to take it down to clean before I opened the store. (This after he worked well into the evening replacing the wall and bookshelves so they would be available today.) When I arrived, the entire work area was vacuumed and the walls dirtied during the project were washed, tasks I was too tired to face last evening. I am a very lucky woman.
3. Being hailed as “the coffee goddess” by Bill and Ken each morning as I arrived to open the store after a stop at Wawa. They were at work much earlier, trying to do the most disruptive tasks while the store was closed.
4. Customers who were understanding of the confusion, and shopped anyway (maybe buying more than usual out of sympathy), or came back when the sections they wanted to see were draped in tarps on their first visit. One suggested I just attribute the mess to the store ghost, who also gets the blame when books are out of place.
5. The opportunity to clean and reorganize some of my work space that might have been neglected for much longer.
6. The realization that three calamities at one time means two fewer times that things will be torn apart; it’s an old building, stuff happens. Sooner or later, all the pipes will have been replaced.
The next time you visit a charming independent book store in an historic building, know that the appealing façade has its dark side. If these walls could talk – maybe they would tell me what’s next!