Guest Spot: Saying farewell to Greenport’s The Book Scout

It was a sad day last week when Pete Stevens walked out the door of The Book Scout for the last time. It was another link cut from the chain connecting us to the past, back to a time when rents were reasonable and used book stores, like The Book Scout, could survive, if not prosper.

Still, a more than three-decade run for a shop that didn’t sell food or clothing is pretty impressive. Actually, given the incredible turnover rate among businesses in Greenport, it is downright amazing. The Chamber of Commerce should give him an award.

The Book Scout was an institution that defied description. In this age of homogenized decor, where every shopper is an expert on Yelp, full of his or her own personal “shopping experiences,” The Book Scout existed in a parallel universe. The shop was not neat; far from it. Nor was it dusted. Pete did sweep on a regular basis, though where those sweepings went, no one seemed to know. Its stock of books, up to 6,000 at any time, were displayed on irregular and mismatching bookshelves of various sizes and materials.

Due to some wiring quirk, not all the overhead fluorescent lights would work if the humidity was above 50 percent. It was not unusual for Pete to turn the heat on in July so he could get his lights to work. Sometimes even that didn’t help and, over the years, there were times when the lights didn’t go on at all. What a perfect metaphor.

Most of the customers didn’t seem to notice, using ambient light from the windows to browse. The store more resembled a rummage sale, the day after, than a smartly run, well-oiled business. Yet Pete was no slouch. Beneath his elfin appearance and somewhat distracted manner, Pete is a smart cookie with wide reaching tastes who knew what his customers wanted. At least most of the time.

And it wasn’t just books that Pete displayed and sold. Anything that caught his interest — and his interest is pretty inclusive — he would buy, if the price was right, and resell, if he could. This included guitars, mandolins, violins, violin cases, violin bows, guitar amplifiers (I got an Ampeg Jet, 100 bucks, about 15 years ago and use it professionally) Leica and Nikon cameras, record turntables, hand-carved folk art, Victorian-era “Ordinary Bicycles,” ship models, antique scallop dredges, clam rakes, eel forks, postcards and more.

He even once sold (to me, I might add) a brick of pressed Chinese tea that I have no idea what to do with. Pete never worked a customer. Never talked fast or tried to make a sale. People found what they wanted, tried to bargain a bit and either bought or didn’t.

To the uninitiated, the shop seemed to have no order at all. It was not uncommon to see folks come to the front door, look in and then beat a hasty retreat, thinking they were looking into a scene from the life of the Collier brothers. Most others, though, understood immediately and waded in like confident swimmers. The store was deceptively organized: art and photography books along with the paperbacks (half-off cover price) at the entrance, then nature, arts and crafts, fishing, philosophy, drama, world literature.

The other side of the room held the drama section, then sailing, maritime history and sports, leading to American history and military history. The spine of the store was a path so narrow that two people could not pass each other without a polite “excuse me.”

In the back, where the cooking section was, all the cookbooks were in the old sliding-glass-door cooler that had been used to hold soft drinks from the time when the place had been a restaurant. When visitors inquired as to the location of cookbooks, Pete would say, “In the back. In the refrigerator.” In the back, too, was the store’s one upholstered chair, a mid-century modern design with aluminum and wood frame covered in black vinyl. Very comfortable. It was not uncommon to have a person come into the store looking for someone only to find them snoozing in that chair, an open book on his or her lap.

The Book Scout will be missed, especially among the legion of visitors who stop by every year to resume conversations with Pete that they began the previous season. Visiting sailors will be disappointed that they can’t find a used Bowditch or an old nautical chart. Others will miss having a place to sell their books. I will miss the place as well. One of the reasons I moved to Greenport a quarter of a century ago was partially due to Pete’s store. I figured, and correctly so, that any small village that supports such a place can’t be half bad.

David Berson is an inveterate reader and fan of Pete Stevens.