Sept. 22, Meredith, N.H. – I drove north from Laconia on New Hampshire 106, wondering what the hell had become of U.S. Route 3. An older couple did laps on the rubberized track at the local high school, inclining together to shield themselves from the increasingly chilly winds of autumn.
Leaves pulled free of their moorings on maples and birches and floated to earth. The flamboyance of the New England fall is about ready to strut upon its annual stage.
Finally I reached a traffic circle and a reunion with Route 3. As I swung around to head north, I looked over my shoulder and saw a sign for a barn sale featuring half-priced books. Mary Robertson’s Good Old Books.
I continued around the circle and went south. I negotiated the driveway, shut off the engine and strolled through the barn’s open door. I found a piece of paper tacked on a cross beam with a handwritten note that read: “The laws of karma apply here – That means if you don’t pay for what you get now, you will pay later … maybe 2 or 3 hundred years later. And the price will be brutal.”
A strapping man swept up an array of detritus, including a collection of shattered glass, into a pile. He looked like George Kennedy.
“You’ve got a mess there,” I said, not knowing how else to break the ice.
“Actually, we’re not really open,” he said.
Then he invited me to stick around. He turned on all the lights and gave me a brief primer to the collection. A circular saw whined, followed soon after by the staccato pounding of a hammer.
Where the hell is Mary Robertson? I wondered.
The man with the broom was Wilfred “Wil” Robertson, son of Mary and unwitting inheritor of her world of good old books. She died in 2007, and this summer he finally got the gumption to unbox all those books and attempt to unload them.
Wil shared a few stories about Meredith, his hometown, before going back to work. He betrayed a pleasantly sardonic manner, and I recognized him as a character I’d love to talk with. But first there was the ritual dance to perform. I browsed, and browsed slowly, through Mary’s leftovers while Wil and his partner, Andre, slowly went about renovating the 19th century barn.
Only when I’d frittered away a good half-hour and selected $10 worth of books did I feel up to asking Wil if he’d like to answer a few questions.
This old place is weighed down with history. The floor is an undulating canvas knitted from 12-inch-wide planks of rough-hewn timber. His mother ran a bookstore here for nearly 50 years. Before that, his grandfather, James W. Kennon, who bought this place in about 1924, built cabins and ran a profitable tourist trade.
Wil pulled up a chair and began to hold court.
“I’m running a bookstore and a junk emporium, I guess,” he said. “It’s comprised of all my childhood toys which my mother did not manage to sell while she was alive, and some of the books. She started out with a service in the early ’50s finding out-of-print books for collectors. In the process she accumulated quite a few books. She would go to an estate sale, for instance, and she knew which ones the plums were. She would offer a bulk price for all of them, and she’d take the ones that were not the cherry ones and she’d sell them to keep the business going, or she’d store them in the barn.”
Mary was 93 when she died. Wil had high hopes some deep-pocketed corporate interest would come knocking, buy the place and leave him set for life. And then the economy crashed.
And so the saw whines, and again is followed by the pounding of a hammer. Wil is a wonderful character. Selfishly, I’m glad he didn’t sell out and go to Bora Boar.
He’s busy writing his memoirs, which he calls “The Testicular Testimonies.”
He’s written about 400 pages so far, which gets him to age 27 or 28. I asked about The Testimonies. What are the high points? Would he mind telling me a little about it. He paused for a moment, then said, “What the hell?
“The family was alcoholic but highly functional. I was probably alcoholic before birth. My mother drank. It was always there. There was some odd sexual stuff going on. Probably the one drive I’ve had all my life is trying to find some kind of a spiritual path, I guess is the most prosaic way to put. I had no formal religious background at all. … Before we had any kind of martial arts classes in New Hampshire, I got books from my mother’s publishers in Vermont, books on karate and judo and aikido. These were grass-bound, beautiful volumes which were lavishly illustrated. … I’ve bounced around in different religious meditations, even evangelical Christian groups. Everything I’ve done in my life has revolved around that. I’ve never had the slightest ambition to make money or achieve any kind of recognition, except on the stage.”
Somewhere along the line I had to break the flow and inject my boilerplate question regarding the divergent characters of Vermont and New Hampshire. He delivered an answer to end the question for all time.
“My background is in theater,’ he said. “And in the process of listening to the differences in the various New England accents, I see in a difference in character. It’s a little esoteric, really, but if you take the Vermont accent, which I hear as “Vehrrmawnt is maaww awwh less a rahwwwnded koiwwnd of an accent, wheah New Hampsha is kind of shawp. And Maine is a kawmbination of the two. In a sense you could characterize the people that way. I find that if you look at even at the political and cultural philosophies of the states, Vermont tends to be much more open-minded, much more well-rounded in a sense. New Hampshire is pretty cut-and-dried, for the most part. Even the people who have moved from out of state into New Hampshire seem to be, at least to me, seem to be very commercially oriented.”
I particularly enjoyed the story he told about gentrified Meredith, which is just a mile north on 3 from Mary’s barn. It was invented out of whole cloth by developers.
“It was very boring when I lived here,” he said. “There was one movie theater and that went out of business. I bought an old 8-millimeter camera and made up my own movies just to keep my interest up. Now there’s not only a movie theater, but the whole town is geared toward tourism. They have essentially made a town and a history of a town that never really existed. But it’s fine with me, because it’s much prettier than reality ever was. And I’ve always had my problems with reality.
“I much prefer fantasy. My major problems in life have been confusing the two.”
When he was a boy, the major employer in town was a firm called Keasbey & Mattison. The Keasbey & Mattison mill produced asbestos. Which is really the heart of the story.
“There’s a conglomerate of very aesthetically pleasing buildings in Meredith, which is called Mill Falls,” he said. “It includes restaurants, jewelry stores and kind of chi-chi shops. In one of the restaurants is a big plaque which commemorates the place as the site of a piano factory in the early days. Which may indeed be true, but whenever it was a piano factory must have been way before I grew up there in the ’50s. Because when I grew up in the fifties, it was the site of the Keasbey & Mattison asbestos mill.
“And I can remember seeing the parents of my school friends sitting on the lawn at lunchtime with their bologna sandwiches and puffs of asbestos cotton in their hair and clothes and sort of tumbling into their sandwiches. And they’d consume them. There’s been a definite spin put on the town. Of course the asbestos factory is never mentioned.”
His theater training had become obvious by now. He was enjoy this tiny little stage, and I was enjoying his performance. He spent a year in Maine training with a professional mime. And he has an extensive background in the theater.
“Occasionally I’ll do a community show,” he said. “I did ‘Of Mice and Men.’ I got to be the guy that kills the dog, which pretty much goes along with my existential point of view. My theater background was pretty expensive in terms of training. I have really quite a bit of experience working with people who are really top-notch. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to work in community theater. It may sound arrogant or egotistical or whatever, but there’s an awful lot of ego involved in theater anyway, and people are very reluctant to take any kind of advice. So you really have to hold your tongue a lot, and I am not very good at that. I have some problems there.”
The Steinbeck production swung him back to New Hampshire for a moment.
“The other thing about New Hampshire that is never spoken is, if you travel through New Hampshire, you will see fewer black people than anywhere in the country,” he said. “And it’s always been like that. One of the characters in “Of Mice and Men” is black. They weren’t able to find a black guy to play the part until the last week before we performed. And the whole cast never performed together in rehearsal. The first time we ever performed with Crooks was the premiere.That gives you an idea of the New Hampshire behind the image, the real New Hampshire.”
What about Mary Robertson? Iasked. What kind of person was she?
“Ohhh boy,” he said. He jumped up, walked a few feet to his right and quickly returned with a drawing of a sour-faced woman who looks like she just lost a lemon-eating contest. It was drawn by his brother, when he was about 11 years. |
“She was very intelligent, acerbic, and she had no business having a family,” he said. “She should have been a professional. But at that time, other than being a nurse or a schoolteacher, there wasn’t much open for women. She was the first selectwoman in the town of Meredith and the first woman on the Belknap area county commission. She was a very staunch Democrat. She was very political in her milieu.”
So, um, she wasn’t the warmest mother?
“The warmest?” he said, his face filling with a broad smile. “I would have to say she was about the coldest mother that would be possible. She was, let’s just say, intellectual.”
Mary Kennon married John F. “Jack” Robertson. They lived together for a time in the town of Meredith, which abuts the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. Eventually she drifted back up the road to her dad’s place. Jack Robertson was a skilled carpenter who built many of the houses on the lake at that time.
“He went to school at night to learn the trade,” he said. “He was very intelligent and he was very warm. I would say I got most of my human feelings from him, not from Mary. Mary however read to me from a very early age and she read the classics. The original versions, not the Disney versions. She read the real stuff and inculcated in me more than a love, a need for literature. I’ve always read, I’ve always written and I’ve always been interesting in performing. She was pretty much responsible for that.”
When Mary and her sister Ruth were girls, Wil’s grandfather ran the cabin business. His wife cooked meals and the girls waited tables.
“They called my grandfather Pappy,” Wil said. “People would come back every year to see him because he sat up in the office and played poker and drank whiskey and smoked cigars and kind schmoozed with them. And he was very good at it. He was very, very good with people. Not so great at doing actual work, but very good with people. I picked up some of those tendencies. He brought people back.
“They came back year after year. They came up from Boston. They came from Providence and from New York.”
The saw whines, and the hammer pounds. Andre is hard at work. He’s residing the old barn, Wil said, with wood that fell during the 1938 hurricane. Andre’s an extraordinary musician going through some life trials, and he’s living on the property in a trailer Wil bought for the purpose.
As for Wil, he said he’s enjoyed spending a summer in Mary’s barn and selling off some of her stockpile of good, old books. Like the writing, it has been therapeutic for him.
“I’ve just come out of a period being very, very isolated,” he said. “I’ve met some interesting people. I’ve met some nasty people too. But I found this is a very safe position in which to meet people.”
And, occasionally, break out the old dramatic chops.
“I had a woman come in and ask if I had a Ouija board,” he said. “I said, ‘Lady, the last ouija board I had was in 1985 and I threw it underneath the cabin and I haven’t touched one since, and I suggest you don’t, either.’ She said, ‘I thought it would be a good game.’ I said, ‘it’s not a game. It could be a doorway to something you don’t want to deal with, unless you have a good guide. And lady, you don’t.’
“She said, ‘I’m scared,’ and I said, ‘you should be scared. And stay away from Ouija boards.'”
I wish I had been there to see that performance. As it was, I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Mary’s barn. I thanked Wil for being such an entertaining host, and I hope he knew I meant it. We exchanged email addresses and pledged to stay in touch.
And so I returned to U.S. 3 and drove north, a big smile on my face.