LEE, N.H. — Vince McCaffrey says he doesn’t notice the smell inside the converted barn beside his home in this snail-paced New England village. It’s a distinctive scent of musty paper, old wood, and the still air of tucked-away crannies good for solitude and thought.
By this point, it’s as familiar as drawing breath.
“I don’t smell it anymore,” McCaffrey said, a smile broadening beneath his bushy, silver hair. “I’ve been smelling it since I was 15 years old.”
The aroma is of used books, nearly 25,000 on display, rising in tightly packed rows along 8-foot-high shelves that fill this 18th-century barn with the work of a lifetime, inspired by an unquenchable love for the printed word.
This red barn is home to Avenue Victor Hugo, a year-old reincarnation of the sprawling Boston bookstore that McCaffrey owned on Newbury Street from 1975 until 2003, when soaring rents and then a fire forced him to close shop.
McCaffrey is 72 now, nearly 50 years removed from the bulky pushcart of books that he peddled across from the Boston Public Library before opening Avenue Victor Hugo nearby.
And it’s been 16 years since he left Newbury Street, first trucking the books to his eight-room Victorian apartment in Brookline, as well as to storage, and then moving them to an old Abington shoe factory, where he conducted the business online.
Now, the books have moved to the quiet center of this southern New Hampshire village, waiting to be held, and opened, and plumbed for the magic that lies inside. It’s a magic that McCaffrey and his wife, Thais, couldn’t resist rekindling, with or without the prospect of commercial success.
“I was going crazy. I was sitting in a warehouse staring at a screen and talking to myself a lot. For a long time, I had amnesia about a lot of this,” McCaffrey said, looking around the barn at his stacks of vintage treasure.
Feeling disconnected, he and his wife circled back to a core question: “What was the reason we had a store in the first place?”
The reason was to interact with other readers, talk about books, and share and collect recommendations about unfamiliar authors and unexplored literature. When their daughter and son-in-law bought a home in Lee in 2016, and when they realized the old bookshelves fit neatly into the 30-by-40-foot barn, the McCaffreys saw a chance to start anew.
“I’m so used to being surrounded by books. I don’t know what I would do if I weren’t,” Thais said. “Sometimes when we sell certain books, I think, ‘Oh, I hadn’t read it.’ ”
Vince said he has touched every item in the store more than once, including when he bought, catalogued, and priced them.
He pulled “Thundering Herd” by Zane Grey off the shelf, gazing tenderly at it as he would a child.
“I can just look at the spine of the book, and it brings back the memory,” McCaffrey said. “I’m sorry. You can’t get that out of a Kindle.”
Wandering the barn brings browsers past the complete works of Rudyard Kipling, “The Common Reader” by Virginia Woolf, a 30-pound binder with 1923 issues of the Boston Evening Transcript, and a copy of the Evergreen Review with “Che Guevara’s Bolivian Guerrilla Diary,” just to name a few.
The signs atop each aisle — from Americana to biography to children’s books and far beyond — are from the original store, named for the fashionable Paris street that McCaffrey adopted as a whimsical contrast to his hand-built pushcart, which he called “Descartes.”
McCaffrey said the new bookstore, which also displays 1,000 magazines and is open only on Fridays and Saturdays, has attracted more customers than expected since he reopened in September 2018. It’s not the Back Bay, but the barn, with only a small sign to indicate what lies within, has become a destination for professors and students from the University of New Hampshire in nearby Durham.
“We’ve had an amazing amount of business,” McCaffrey said. “It’s not enough to support us, but it’s many times better than I thought it would be.”
Customers from the Newbury Street days have traveled from Boston, its suburbs, and elsewhere in New England, McCaffrey said. They come for nostalgia, they come to reacquaint, and they come to browse.
Carla Cannizzaro, whose patronage spans both locations, said she was delightedly startled when Avenue Victor Hugo reopened here.
“It’s pretty incredible. It’s so great to have them be so close again,” said Cannizzaro, academic coordinator for the UNH English department.
Cannizzaro discovered the Newbury Street store in the 1990s while exploring the city as a high-schooler from Burlington, Mass.
Later, on a return visit from college, she found the store shuttered.
“It was really upsetting. Suddenly, I had no place to go,” Cannizzaro said.
McCaffrey has been touched by the fondness for the old store and the gratitude for its improbable return.
“How do you understand the impact you have on people?” McCaffrey said, shaking his head slightly. “I didn’t know this. I was just the guy behind the counter.”
Now, when McCaffrey’s not behind the counter, he’s helping care for two grandchildren — a 2-year-old and 5-month-old — who live with his daughter and son-in-law in the old house beside the barn.
Vince and Thais McCaffrey live here, too. During the week, they rotate shifts with the grandchildren — Vince in the morning, Thais in the afternoon — as the young parents work from home. The arrangement has been a win-win for the family.
“Saying this is ideal is maybe going a little too far, but maybe not too far,” McCaffrey said with a quick, elfin grin.
McCaffrey, who said he used to tear through five books a week as a young man, still finds two to three hours a day to read, mostly essays and history.
It’s a passion that began as a newspaper boy in his teens, when he was given his pick of thousands of books, dating back a century, from the deteriorating barn of a customer in Larchmont, N.Y.
A life’s course had been set, and the journey continues with no end in sight.
“I don’t like the idea of being a museum,” McCaffrey said, shaking his head. “I’m hoping to get 10 more years out of this body. I don’t understand the concept of retirement.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.