SEARSPORT — Within the bright yellow walls of Penobscot Books & Antiques on U.S. Route 1 lies an unexpected treasure: a room that is chock-full of Japanese porcelain, bronze temple bells, statuary, samurai swords and much more.
Proprietor Howard La Rue said recently that collecting the objects that have been carefully arranged in the store’s new Asia room has been a true labor of love. “Here’s our pride and joy,” he said while opening the door to the dimly lit room that appears to be a cross between a museum and a sanctuary. The retired Episcopal priest, 81, lived in Japan during the 1950s with his wife, Kate, now deceased, and their four children. Last year he went back for a visit, and when he went to his former home — a classic Japanese house that overlooked Sagami Bay on the east coast of Honshu Island — he saw that it had been smashed to pieces by a typhoon. “It was terrible. Just terrible,” the energetic octogenerian said. “I still can’t believe it.”
The 200-year-old house itself had been a work of art, with sliding doors and tatami mat floors. When La Rue came back home to Maine, he had the idea of trying to re-create something that had been lost. “I look back on it now, and it was the Garden of Eden,” he said.
So he went to work, scouring San Francisco and traveling to Japan to find as much Imari porcelain as he could as well as other finds to sell in Maine. He hired workers to place large wooden beams inside the Asia room, which lies at the far end of his extensive store. On the white scroll that dominates one wall, La Rue carefully lettered the Japanese characters for “passion for beauty.”
He said that he hopes people will come to shop but also to soak up something more. “A sense of peace,” he said, “peace, and having seen something beautiful.”
So far, so good, according to La Rue. “Everybody who’s been in there has been just gaga for it,” he said. “It’s been very well received.”
While much of the antique porcelain is quite expensive, there are modern pieces of Japanese pottery for sale for much less, with prices starting at $1. “People will be able to pick up something they like,” he said.
The La Rues opened the bookstore in 1995, and it has expanded several times over the years. The store now is home to a large selection of books on maritime issues, poetry, decorative arts, Western and Eastern religion, Zen, fishing, liturgical art and Remington bronzes. The rooms are decorated with pieces of art, and La Rue — a friendly, talkative type — seems to have interesting things to say on many topics.
He has moved the extensive collection of books on Japanese and Chinese arts and culture, gardens and architecture to the Asia room.
La Rue said that the bookstore was intended to be a retirement project. “It’s fun,” he said. “It’s good to be occupied, to wake up in the morning with something to do and a pleasant place to do it in.”
Penobscot Books & Antiques at 164 West Main St. (U.S. Route 1) in Searsport is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, call 548-6490 or visit http://www.penobscotbooks.com. Fifteen percent of all 2011 sales from the new room will go toward disaster relief in Fukushima, Japan. As a celebration of the new room, customers will receive a 10 percent discount on purchases throughout the rest of the store during July and August.