LIBERTY, Maine — At 7:30 on Saturday morning, a group of eight people stood on the road outside a three story shop that’s housed in a former inn at the center of town.
They were waiting for Skip Brack, the owner of the shop, Liberty Tool Co., to unload the most recent haul of tools he’d picked up in towns across New England and brought to Maine to clean, refurbish and sell.
Brack, 69, had hardly opened the doors of his van before the group descended on the boxes of tools, picking through hammers, saws, axes, planes, drill bits and chisels.
“A lot of these people are here every week,” said Laure Day, who has worked at Liberty Tool for five years. They’re not just shopping for something they need, but because of a shared passion, she said. “It’s part tools, part camaraderie.”
The regulars consisted of boat builders, timber framers, collectors and a jeweler. They come early to get first dibs before the newest finds get mixed in with the thousands of other tools that line the shelves and fill labeled jars and drawers throughout the store.
As of about a week ago, it’s not only tools that are up for sale. After 44 years in business, Brack is selling the whole store and business, as well as a storage facility across the street and Captain Tinkham’s Emporium in Searsport.
Brack is hoping to find someone who will carry on the business, he said. He’s posted the sale on craigslist and said he’s received emails from a few potential buyers.
“I want to make sure that Liberty Tool will still be in business if I’m not up to doing what I do now,” he said. He explained that he works 70 to 75 hours a week, driving up to 1,200 miles in a week to find tools, clean them at his barn in Bar Harbor, set prices and manage the stores. Now that he’s a few weeks away from turning 70, he wants to scale back.
Brack said he would keep the tool shop that he runs in Bar Harbor and continue to operate the Davistown Museum, a space across the street from Liberty Tool where he displays his most prized discoveries, along with work by Maine artists.
“The historical aspect has motivated me,” he said of his business.
“As we pull up the tools from all these settlements across New England, the tools really tell a history,” he said. “They tell an interesting narrative.”
Handmade tools that were used for woodworking had their golden age in the late 18th and into the 19th century, Brack said. It was a time when shipbuilding was a profitable industry and Maine was at the forefront.
“Before you had factory-made tools, before the Industrial Revolution, everything was built of wood. Those are the tools that built a nation,” he said, gesturing toward axes and hammers displayed in his museum.
Brack pointed out a bog iron hammer that he is particularly fond of. He said he believes it was built by a farmer in Plymouth in the mid-1600s with materials mined locally.
Every two weeks, Brack makes a trip around New England, traveling as far south as Rhode Island. He goes where he hears their are tools for sale, which often brings him to properties that are being divided up because of divorce or a family death.
“I’ve seen every kind of family drama you can imagine,” he said. Sometimes he recognizes his own price tags on the items he buys.
Brack has written 13 books, not only on the history of tools, but also about art, the history of Maine and radioactivity, another subject he is immersed in deeply.
The tool shop’s first iteration was a store in West Jonesport that Brack opened in 1970 after moving to Maine from California, his website states. The first shop sold crafts, antiques, drift wood and a few tools. The store was inundated with requests for woodworking tools, so Brack focused his business and eventually it grew large enough to move to the location in Liberty.
Brack was part of a large migration of young people moving to the area in the 1960s and ‘70s, he said. Some of them are his customers.
Until 8 a.m., the group at Liberty Tool continued to grow.
“For those of us that are into tools, it’s just habit-forming,” said Al Michaud, a retired electrical engineer who said he’s been coming to Liberty Tool on Saturday mornings for over a decade. This Saturday he bought a pruning saw and a small metal box with drawers.
Ryan Brubaker, a timber framer, inspected several axes that were brought in with this week’s haul. He already has about 15, he said, but does not plan to stop there.
“I look for different patterns and shapes,” he said of the axes. “Every tool has its own specific purpose. A lot of stuff comes through here that’s just not made anymore.”
To some tool aficionados, Brack is doing an important service by saving these tools, many of which are handmade and no longer built, explained Tanya Washburn, a jeweler.
“Otherwise, where does it all go?” she said.
By 8:15, the store was almost empty.
“As quick as it starts, it’s over with,” said Rob Demmons, who drives and unloads the Liberty Tool van.
Brack took a seat in a wide wicker chair on the shop’s front porch with a quart-sized cup of coffee.
“I want to sell it while I can still be of some use,” he said. “To keep it going for the long term.”