LIBERTY, Maine — Laure Day has seen a lot of vintage tools come in and out of the doors of Liberty Tool since she started working there six years ago.
But she hadn’t seen a marriage proposal take place amid the store’s crowded, narrow aisles until December, when a repeat customer from out-of-state asked Day to put a white box with his girlfriend’s name on it inside a display case. In the box was a diamond ring, and when the woman — a fan of old tools — finally noticed the box and its contents, she said yes.
“It was pretty emotional,” Day recalled Saturday. “They were crying. I was on the verge. It was a nice moment. It definitely gives you the warm fuzzies.”
Though tools might seem to be too utilitarian to lend themselves to romance, that’s not the case in Liberty, where the three-story building chock full of stuff and stories really is one man’s labor of love.
Skip Brack started the business of buying, identifying, cleaning and reselling old tools 45 years ago as a way to make a buck, but it has become much, much more to him and to the community of people who come to the store to hunt for treasures.
When Brack turned 70 last year and announced that he was looking to sell the whole store and business, including a storage facility across the street and Captain Tinkham’s Emporium in Searsport, tool fans like Ryan Brubaker of Liberty were worried. He comes to the store first thing every Saturday to be there when Brack unloads the van.
“You just never know what you’re going to find. Anything can happen,” he said. “There’s a special community that’s grown around this place.”
Although the ad Brack posted on Craigslist garnered lots of media attention — and concerns from tool lovers — he has yet to find a buyer. Liberty Tool reopened as usual in March after taking a few months off in the colder season.
“As long as my health is good, it’s fun,” he said. “I have to face the age limits. The 80-hour week and the challenges of tool picking. To go find this stuff [I] have to go digging around in cellars.”
But it’s clearly still fun for Brack, who tied on a long apron and moved around his store and his Davistown Museum across the street like a perpetual motion machine, his words flying almost as fast as he moves. Brack’s interests are many and wide-ranging, including writing, human ecology, bio catastrophe, nuclear fallout and history. He’s written books on all these topics, especially the history of tools. The museum boasts a large collection of 18th and 19th century hand tools, Native American tools and artifacts, contemporary Maine art and more.
“The museum is a key to Liberty Tool,” Brack said. “My personal mission is finding these tools. These are the tools that built the nation. This search is what it’s all about.”
He wasn’t always motivated by tools. In the 1970s, Brack lived in Jonesport, where he bought a general store and started a “hippie commune.”
“The lady down the street asked, ‘Do you want my husband’s tool collection?’” Brack recalled.
He sold them all, quickly, and thought he might be on to something. Although the years brought many changes — he started the shop in Liberty and finessed his tool-hunting strategy — the tools still sell. Brack’s estimates he has driven at least 1.25 million miles around New England searching for finds and sells about 100 tons of tools a year.
He puts an ad in “Uncle Henry’s” and makes appointments with people who are cleaning out their attics and cellars to go and look at the tools they have found there. He takes them back to Maine and processes them, figuring out what to charge. In the busy summer months, Brack’s work draws many people to the single road of downtown Liberty.
That includes locals like Brubaker, a timber framer and instrument maker who said that old tools are better made than new ones.
“I like the history. I like when I can see where someone else’s hands used a tool for a generation,” he said. “I like breathing new life into old tools.”
The store also draws people from farther afield.
“Customers come from all over the world,” Day said. “It’s neat that we’re off the beaten path, but we’re a destination point.”
She said that she doesn’t expect that the store will sell soon.
“I think it’s going to take a very special person. There’s a lot of work involved,” she said. “And [Brack’s] are big shoes to fill.”