Of Eggs & Books

Tuesday, 28 September 2010 01:32 PM Written by 

CALAIS, Me. -- 100 miles north of Bangor

We'll never know if John Steinbeck stopped at the US 1 border town of Calais.

Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, the town in 1960 was a lot healthier than it is now.

Population is down from about 4,000 to around 3,000 since 1990, according to the local downeasters/upeasters/overeasterns/fareasters eating breakfast at the counter in Karen's Main Street Diner.


It's a familiar story. Hundred of jobs have been lost in the paper mill. Young people are leaving.

If it weren't for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, there'd be even fewer jobs around.

Calais is in Washington County, which has about 33,000 people and is the state's poorest county. Across the St. Croix River is New Brunswick, Canada, so there's a lot of interaction of all kinds with the Canadians, including marriages.

One side of Calais' Main Street's business district was foolishly destroyed long ago in the name of urban renewal/progress.

But the old red brick buildings that survive include two good reasons for Steinbeck -- or anyone following his trail -- to stop:  Karen's diner and the Calais Book Store.

DSC_1959_2 Karen's is one of those priceless local eateries where getting a breakfast of two eggs over medium, sausage and home fries is a routine of perfection, not a matter of chance. The prices were good and the diner was doing a steady business, as it's done for five years.

Its owners, Karen and Lou Scribner, do homey things like cook their own turkey each week. Unless you go all exotic and go for the fried fresh clams, you can't spend more than $9 on something sensible like a hot turkey sandwich.

A few storefronts up the street is the Calais Book Shop. It's not something you'd expect to find in this part of the world -- especially after driving for what seemed like days through pine forests just hoping for a place that served coffee.

Carole Heinlein, 59, owns and operates the bookstore, which she started five years or so ago with the 8 tons of books she trucked up from Florida. Unlike half the Maine folk around here who head for Florida for the winter or for retirement, she came north and started her own business.


She's hanging on, without being able to afford to hire any help, running a semi-funky place overflowing with thousands of old and new good/classic books of all genres. A copy of "Travels With Charley" sat two feet inside her front door.

It's "Banned Books Week" this week, and Steinbeck would get the importance of that fight against bluenosed censorship. Two of his biggest/greatest works -- "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" --  are perennial  victims of America's nuttier local school boards.

Carole grew up in Key West, Fla., and worked for almost 20 years at various newspaper jobs including reporting.

She loves books, old or new. She doesn't have much good to say about TV or radio, but realizes she has to get an Internet site and go global, if she is ever to survive in her tiny market.

She hasn't made her initial investment back yet, but she's not about to give up, despite the economic downturn. 

"I opened a bookstore in the poorest county in Maine -- on April Fool's Day," she laughed. "The joke's on me. But I'd do the same thing again in the poorest county of any state."

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