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Traveler Food and Books | Only in New England

Traveler Food and Books | Only in New England
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Photo/Art by Hal Mayforth
Off exit 74 on I-84, the quizzical yellow sign that reads Traveler Food and Books is, if nothing else, aptly descriptive. Millions see it every year, but those who stop in tiny Union, Connecticut (population 700), to investigate find an old, wood-paneled restaurant littered with books crammed into shelves and cubbies. It feels a little like eating in a used-book store, with the notable exception that here all of the books are free. Well, up to three per customer per trip, that is.

Martin Doyle, the original owner, started giving away books to diners in the mid-’80s as a way of cleaning out his own cluttered home. When Karen and Art Murdock took over in ’93, they expanded the tradition and, in the process, established their restaurant as a sanctuary for unwanted books. They come from all over–leftovers from church sales, bookstores that are closing, library extras. Wherever there are books in need of a home, the Murdocks are there with an empty horse trailer and a couple of hand trucks to cart away as many boxes as they can. Some mornings they arrive at the restaurant to find bundles of orphaned books on their doorstep. “People just would much rather see them go somewhere than in the trash,” Karen says. Although “there are some books you can’t even give away free,” Art admits, most are just looking for the right owner. He restocks the shelves daily and estimates that he and Karen have given away around 2 million free books since they started.

This piece of road culture is paradise for a certain type of traveler. It’s the anti-fast-food restaurant. The Murdocks encourage people to stick around for a while, have some pie and coffee, and let an hour slide by thumbing through a book of poetry or the biography of some midlevel celebrity.

Word of the restaurant has spread a long way. It’s been written up in Japan and South Africa, and one customer claims he learned of it from bathroom graffiti in a pub in Ireland. Some authors have poked in for a look as well. Robin Moore was a frequent guest, and Steven King is a regular. “He lives across the highway, but it’s a different guy, not Stephen King,” Karen jokes. “Still, whenever you see it on the credit card, you laugh and say, ‘Steven King’s been here again!’”

Maybe someday they’ll get a visit from the famous one. They’ve certainly moved enough of his books.

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Justin Shatwell

Author:

Justin Shatwell

Biography:

Justin Shatwell is a longtime contributor to Yankee Magazine whose work explores the unique history, culture, and art that sets New England apart from the rest of the world. His article, The Memory Keeper (March/April 2011 issue), was named a finalist for profile of the year by the City and Regional Magazine Association.
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