Maureen Rodgers, Bookseller Extraordinaire
Rodgers Book Barn, on Rodman Rd. in Hillsdale, celebrated its 45th anniversary this summer. Founded in 1972, it is relatively young by the standards of the Historians of Hillsdale. It is, for example, 196 years younger than Henry Knox’s “noble train of artillery,” which traveled from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston during the winter of 1775-76 and became part of local history.
But there are similarities. Henry Knox was a 25-year-old bookseller from Boston when he led that expedition through Hillsdale. Maureen Rodgers was a 29-year-old bookseller from New York (by way of London) when she arrived in Hillsdale. Both contended with getting things done on poor quality roads and in lightly inhabited areas. And both succeeded against the odds.
The Book Barn doesn’t need publicity from us – it’s been profiled in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rural Intelligence, among other taste-making publications. It’s well known to discerning book buyers and is constantly being discovered by area newcomers, who embrace it for its comfortable nooks and crannies, 50,000 titles, and free coffee and tea. But we wanted to know more about Maureen Rodgers, its gracious London-born proprietor, and the story behind how The Book Barn came to be. Here are excerpts of our conversation with Maureen.
“I grew up in London but for much of World War II, I was evacuated to the country to go to school. I still came back during holidays – usually just in time to catch an air raid. My mother Joyce was an ambulance driver and worked in the Docklands. After the war I came back to London, which was gray and grim in those days. We walked to school through the bombsites. Rationing didn’t stop until ’53 or ’54. I went to a local grammar school and teacher’s college. I was a second grade teacher for a couple of years.”
From an early age, Maureen’s wanderlust took her to exotic places. “I always backpacked around – it was an important part of my late teens and early 20’s. It was safe. I would go hosteling with friends. I would work for a year, save my money, and then I’d travel. I took a year’s leave of absence from teaching and trekked through Asia. In 1959-1960 we traveled fifth class on a French boat, the cheapest ticket you could get, and started in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), trekked through India, up into Nepal, crossed to Afghanistan, through Iran – I had the most wonderful time in Iran – and through Turkey.”
After more teaching, Maureen soon had saved enough for another year’s leave of absence. With her friend Hillary, she sailed for New York. “We stayed at the YWCA but they only let you stay for a month, so we had to get jobs and a down payment for an apartment – all in a month! Hillary went back after a year, but I stayed. We are still friends, though, and celebrate our birthdays together every ten years. This summer we both turned 80 and reunited in Iceland.”
Books have always been Maureen’s passion. “I always seemed to work in book-related things: I worked at the library at the New School, I put a library together for a real estate company, I hung around the Fourth Avenue bookshops. When I realized I was going to be in the book business, I started buying and selling books to college libraries; I looked up every college in the US and targeted the ones with the biggest library budgets. But every summer I was broke because the schools didn’t buy books in the summer. So I also apprenticed myself in the antiquarian department of Barnes & Nobles on 17th St.”
“In 1963 I met my ex-husband, Hal Rodgers, a writer and musician. We lived in a loft down by Chambers St. back when you could rent one for $100 a month. In the summer of 1966 we came up to Hillsdale to camp on some friends’ land. We stayed here that entire summer, camping and meeting wonderful people.” Before long, Maureen and Hal knew they wanted to move to Hillsdale permanently. But where? “We needed a house and a barn because I had all these books I was still selling to college libraries.”
They soon found the property that comprises today’s Book Barn. “We bought it for $8,000: five acres, the barn and the house. A very old couple had been living here – they used to take in orphan children to work on their farm. There were stanchions for cows in the barn. At first I was a little concerned about the house being so close to the road. I remember counting the cars –on the weekend maybe 10 cars went by the whole day, and that was upsetting! We were from the city and we wanted quiet. Of course, after we opened The Book Barn a few years later I thought, why didn’t I buy something closer to the main road?”
They moved to Hillsdale full time in 1968. The house and the barn were falling down, there was no hot water and they tried to do all the renovation themselves. “In the summer of 1972, we turned the hay out of the barn and rented a cement mixer. We did it ourselves, we laid down the floor – I remember doing that. Ridiculousness! I mean, ridiculousness, looking back! Why didn’t we just hire somebody? But in those days you just did it yourself. We picked up boards and stacked bricks between them and they became the bookcases. It was a mistake to take out those cow stanchions. They would have made great dividers.”
A Cozy Nook for Readers and Browsers
Maureen’s two daughters grew up with The Book Barn and attended Roe Jan schools. At first, The Book Barn occupied just the first floor and a friend lived on the second floor. “Customers would walk into the building and be greeted by the aroma of her pot smoke drifting downstairs. Eventually she found another place to live, and we expanded upstairs.”
Maureen recalls a big network of used bookstores in the 1970s. “That’s what people did on the weekends – went to bookstores. Aubergine [now C. Herrington Home] had a bookstore in the back barn selling photographic books and big art books. There was much more of a book culture back then. But so many bookstores have gone out of business – in Germantown, in Egremont, in Chatham. Hudson City Books is closing – the building has been sold. So much of the second hand book business is online now, but I’ve avoided creating an online business. I don’t think there’s a substitute for the experience of losing yourself, for an hour or two, among stacks of old books, of sometimes discovering an unexpected treasure. It is quite magical, and I think it’s why people keep coming to The Book Barn.”
A Map of The Book Barn’s Organizational Scheme
As The Book Barn has grown, so has Maureen’s loyal customer base. “All kinds of people come to The Book Barn today. I’m very pleased that in recent years so many young people come in. Maybe it has to do with Hillsdale having become a destination. I still have customers that date back to the early days. One fellow has been coming in since the late 1970s. He’s built a barn for his books. I like to think of The Book Barn spawning new book barns where people can house their own collections.”
Maureen admits that she has had some rather famous customers, though she generally declines to name them. One exception: The late poet John Ashbery from Hudson. “He died just a week or two ago. He was wonderful.”
Anyone else? Maureen smiles. “Of course the two film stars – I can never remember their names, but they’re very nice.”