Birchbark Bookshop is a rough-hewn slice of North Country history
By Neal Burdick
Last fall, my wife and I took our daughter and a bibliophile friend of hers to the Birchbark Bookshop, on a winding back road near Parishville in the northern Adirondack foothills. When it came time to leave, it took us 15 minutes to find the guy, hidden among a maze of long wings, narrow aisles and seeming miles of tall, rough-hewn bookshelves.
This is part of the charm of the place, a one-of-a-kind experience in an unlikely location that has acquired since its start in 1987 a dedicated regional customer base as well as in-person shoppers “from all over the world,” says the shop’s founder and owner, Timothy Strong. He launched the secondhand enterprise after his wife took a job at the nearby State University of New York at Potsdam. It’s part refurbished old barn, part additions he and a friend built, and part two relocated Amish-made structures.
On the Sunday before Christmas, light snow filters through the mixed hardwoods that envelop the setting. A hand-crafted Adirondack Rustic sign ushers me toward a low, bluish building that seems to stretch in all directions. A stained-glass window graces one wing; birdhouses sprout here and there.
Once inside, I realize “bookshop” is a major misnomer. Yes, there are books—“about 75,000” says Strong, plus two full trailers out back. Woven among them, are—deep breath, please; this is going to take a while—incense, balsam oil, crinkly big band sheet music, century-old postcards, old-fashioned school desks (one, doll in the seat included, can be yours for $450), knickknacks, posters, wall calendars from decades ago, vinyl 33 1/3 albums featuring artists from Buck Owens through Peter, Paul & Mary to Mantovani and Procol Harum, CDs, magazines that no longer exist (The Saturday Evening Post, Life), comics, presidential campaign pins from the 1800s, dishes and ceramics, antique toys, handmade paper, gas lamps, locally blended potpourri, and jewelry. You can even buy one of the bookshelves, $60, delivered. Whew!
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But it’s the books that are the stars of this show. They pack every spot available, and represent every genre imaginable: the predictable, along with Hunting & Fishing, International Cuisine, Irish, Military History, Olympics, Quilting, Railroads, Yoga, and on and on.
The Adirondack/North Country section interests me the most. When I ask Strong how many books he has here, he strokes his long salt-and-pepper beard below the intermission of his covid mask and says, “Oh, about a thousand.” Bathed in the warmth of his glowing woodstove (“It’s enough to keep this one going,” he observes by way of explaining that the other half dozen stoves scattered throughout the store are propane-fueled) are almost every regional book of any repute. In a Victorian cabinet with glass doors, one of several that house his most valuable collections, I see first editions of New York (State) Forest Commission Reports from the 1890s and an original “Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness, 1873-74,” by Verplanck Colvin, priced at $175. Around the corner are seven trays of penny postcards featuring turn-of-the-20th-century scenes of towns from Camden to Chazy. It’s tempting to grab a time-worn book, settle into one of the eclectic collection of chairs tucked in crannies (one is made of snowshoes) and read for a while.