At first glance, the red barn that sits at the center of Lee, New Hampshire looks unremarkable — a pleasant but predictable relic of rural, New England life. In fact, though, it’s the site of a sort of resurrection.
"Set them on the counter and I’ll be right with you," Vincent McCaffrey, the gray-maned, mustachioed proprietor of Avenue Victor Hugo Books, told a customer on a recent Friday morning.
For nearly three decades, Avenue Victor Hugo was a signature business on Boston's Newbury Street — a massive shop specializing in used and rare titles that was beloved by Boston bibliophiles. But in 2004, Avenue Victor Hugo closed its doors.
"We could not afford the cost of being on Newbury Street," McCaffrey said. "[It's] a common enough ailment for any small business.
"Given all the mistakes I made as a businessman, the store did fabulously well," he added. "But then, those times were over."
McCaffrey kept selling books online and threw himself into writing fiction, but he was pretty sure his days as a brick-and-mortar bookseller were finished.
In 2016, though, McCaffrey’s daughter and son-in-law bought their first home in Lee, New Hampshire. By chance, or maybe by design, it happened to include an adjoining space that offered McCaffrey the opportunity to make a comeback.
"They bought that house, probably based on the fact that they could cajole me into moving the books into the barn," McCaffrey said with a chuckle.
There are fewer books on the shelves in the Lee location than there were on Newbury Street: a bit more than 20,000, compared to 150,000 when the old store was at its peak. But there’s also a measure of continuity, from the handmade signs that mark different sections to the memorabilia dotting the store.
Also providing a connection to the past: McCaffrey’s sense of mission, which is almost evangelical.
"I’m not trying to preserve past; I’m really not. I’m trying get the present to appreciate the past."
This goal is made clear in his affinity for publications that capture bygone ways of looking at the world, packaged to bring the present-day reader as close as possible to the past.
By way of example, McCaffrey pulled a book off the poetry shelf at random: “City Ways and Company Streets,” by World War I veteran and Greenwich Village habitué Charles Divine, a hardcover printed a century ago and showing its age.
"You likely could find this book reprinted," McCaffrey says. "It would be on white paper, white covers, a paperback. But if you really want to feel this book, this is the way to read it and appreciate it."
"This is the period, this is the time, this is the place," he added, leafing through the book's pages. "This is what it’s all about."
In Lee, which is just down the road from the University of New Hampshire, that message seems to resonate. On a recent Friday, Avenue Victor Hugo was bustling, with shoppers perusing the stacks and would-be sellers getting McCaffrey's candid assessment of their wares.
If that scene sounds appealing, take note: in another break with the past, the new Avenue Victor Hugo is only open two days a week, on Fridays and Saturdays. The reason? As thrilled as McCaffrey is to be back in business, he has also become a grandparent.
"There’s babysitting to do and stuff," he said.
When he’s not handling his new responsibilities, though, McCaffrey will be back in the stacks he thought he'd left behind 15 years ago.