BANGOR, Maine — Even after 35 years in business, the hunt for rare books remains thrilling for Bill Lippincott. Though that great find happens less often than it used to, Lippincott still stumbles across a first edition of a classic novel, or a long out-of-print oddity from the 19th century, and excitedly snaps it up. This is a man who deeply and devotedly loves books, of all kinds.
“That’s really the most fun part of it, still, is coming up with something you’ve never seen before,” said Lippincott, who has operated Lippincott Books in several Bangor locations since the early 1980s. “It still happens, and it’s always exciting.”
Though his clientele still buys books — he has patrons who come to him regularly for titles in many genres, from the natural history of Maine to early 20th century children’s books — Lippincott decided awhile back to close the retail end of his business in the first few months of 2011.
“It’s not for lack of business. I just want to spend more time with fewer books,” said Lippincott. “My online business has really taken off in the past few years. It’s a natural progression for a retail shop, and I like the idea of selling at home.”
His bookstore, located at 36 Central St. in downtown Bangor since 1994, is equal parts retail shop and lovingly curated museum of the printed word. Stepping into the warm, quiet space, you smell the pleasant, musty scent of old books, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, some from the 17th and 18th centuries, and some from even earlier.
The shelves reach toward the ceiling, packed with thousands of titles. If you’re looking for something old and obscure, you’ve come to the right place. Downloadable publications for e-readers such as the Kindle offer instant gratification, but history lives and breathes in the pages of the books at Lippincott.
In the coming weeks, Lippincott will begin the process of moving more than 20,000 books from the shop to his home in Hampden, where he’ll sell books online, at book fairs and to customers by appointment. He has another 20,000 books on top of that.
In fact, Lippincott is looking to sell the store stock to a buyer interested in continuing with another retail shop. But come March, Lippincott Books, a Bangor mainstay for nearly three decades, won’t be a part of downtown life anymore.
Bill Lippincott, 59, has been in the rare books field since the mid-1970s. A native of Rye, N.Y., he moved to Maine in 1973 to work on an organic farm in Troy. Needing an extra source of income, in 1975 he began selling by mail order the old and rare books he’d been collecting since he was much younger.
In those early days, he purchased some of his favorite finds, such as 300 copies of an old underground newspaper called Yarrow Stalks, which published some of the first works of revered alternative comic artist R. Crumb. He also found a copy of the first volume of Action Comics, featuring the first-ever appearance of Superman, which he sold on consignment for $3,000.
“I was really hooked,” said Lippincott. “I was living in the woods at the time, so when I wasn’t picking apples or haying I’d hit the road and go up and down the Maine coast, going to flea markets and estate sales. I’d go to book shows in New York and Boston. I accumulated a lot.”
As his business increased, so did his collection, and when he outgrew his space, he opened a shop in Bingham, which he ran until 1983. That year, he moved to Bangor, and opened Lippincott Books on Hammond Street, where he stayed until 1994, when he opened the Central Street location.
Ask Lippincott about more recent “finds,” and he’ll pull out James Joyce’s “Tales From Shem and Sean,” a book from the 1920s that later would become “Finnegan’s Wake,” and a 1959 copy of Playboy Magazine containing a novelette by Jack Kerouac.
As an integral part of downtown Bangor for 17 years, Lippincott has seen dramatic changes.
“When I first moved into this shop, it was the beginning of a pretty dark period for downtown. It was so empty,” he said. “Just in the last five years, it’s really come alive. There’s so much more music and culture and art. There are so many more new businesses. It’s becoming vibrant.”
Lippincott has been the site of countless book signings, readings and poetry recitals over the years, including events as part of the Bangor Book Festival and the Downtown Countdown. Adding to its personality, the store also had a beloved shop cat named Kaspar. A little more than a year ago, Kaspar, defined by his tuxedo markings and long, lazy storefront naps, died at the age of 17. A customer painted a portrait of Kaspar, which hangs near the register.
In the last few weeks of his shop being open, business has continued as usual. A longtime employee, Nancy Rosalie, sits at a computer, sorting titles. Another long-term employee, Ginger Graham, is skilled at book repair. Lippincott’s wife, Dorothy, comes and goes, and Lippincott maintains a presence in the store later on in the week, when he’s not at home, tending to online sales.
He said he ideally would like to see the space remain a retail location, though it is up to building owners WBRC, the architecture firm that bought the building five years ago, as to what the future holds.
“In a sense, I’m sad to be going, because I think now is such a great time for downtown, and I’ve been able to watch a lot of it happen,” he said. “But I’ve got so many books to go through, and so many other things to do, that it just feels like now is the right time. I will miss it.”
Lippincott Books will hold a farewell gathering for the store, and a book launch party for Bangor poet Kathleen Ellis’ new book, “Narrow River to the North,” at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19. Ellis will read, along with poets Linda Buckmaster, Cheryl Daigle, Elizabeth Garber, Annaliese Jakimides, Megan London, Steve Martin, Lisa Panepinto, Bruce Pratt and Catherine Schmitt, and a musical performance from Eric Green.
To peruse part of Lippincott’s selection of rare books, log on to abebooks.com and search for “Lippincott.”