Travel: New England Traditions
For all of my trips here, I loved the saxophone day most; I listen for those sweet notes every time I round the bend and look into Tucks’ great glacial cirque.
A Place of Wonder for Lovers of Books
New England’s oldest and largest book sale turns 50.
In New Hampshire’s Upper Connecticut River Valley, home to the Five-Colleges Book Sale, bibliophiles have long circled one particular April weekend on their calendars. At Lebanon High School, 75,000 books, DVDs, CDs, books on tape, and videos find tables to land on. There are plenty of signs and red-aproned volunteers to direct you to the children’s section, Civil War, CliffsNotes, collectibles, cookbooks–and that’s just the Cs.
All year long, donated books gather in an empty storefront. In 2010, 425 boxes of books were trucked in from a single donor in Newbury, New Hampshire. Another contributor delivered 18 boxes of cookbooks. One memorable “find” was an Edward Gorey pop-up book, appraised at $600. “We count serendipity one of the pleasures of our sale,” says one organizer. Donations are sorted by volunteers, mostly alumnae of the five colleges that benefit from the proceeds: Simmons, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Mt. Holyoke. The sale can yield up to $70,000 in scholarship aid for students from New Hampshire and Vermont.
Shoppers start lining up two hours before the doors open. Hundreds of buyers, many of them dealers looking for specialties, rush in for the first 15 minutes. Our tip? Wait for the midafternoon lull, or for Sunday’s half-price sale.
Sometimes the food is the least important memory.
On or around May 1 here in Rhode Island, from Woonsocket to Westerly, in Elks lodges and high schools, fire stations and church basements, people are eating jonnycakes, clamcakes, and pancakes; bacon, ham, and scrambled
eggs; soufflés and apple pie. It all began in 1867, when the Old Quaker Meeting House in Cranston–by that time hosting a Baptist congregation–first raised money by sponsoring a two-day May celebration like the ones traditionally held in England. Folks sang hymns, ate chicken, danced around a maypole, and raised $155.50–a success.
For me, a century later, May breakfasts meant putting on dressy clothes, piling into our green Chevy station wagon with my parents and brother, and driving to one church or another. We’d go into the basement, take our seats at a long folding table, and eat. And eat. My brother always ate the most. My father always liked it best. My mother always complained (eggs too dry or runny, bacon too fatty or burned). I didn’t know we were doing anything special until I moved away and May came and went without a May breakfast to be had.
When I moved back to Rhode Island in the early ’90s and had kids of my own, I saw a sign one day outside a church: May Breakfast This Saturday. In that moment, I could already smell that church basement. I could already taste the eggs. We didn’t dress fancy, but there were long folding tables and eggs and pancakes and bacon and weak coffee and Dixie cups of orange juice, all of it served by Boy Scouts in their tan-and-green uniforms with their colorful merit badges.
We ate and ate, and then we climbed the stairs and opened the door and stepped outside. Dogwood trees wore pink-and-white blossoms. Tall purple irises bowed as we passed. I paused. I took a deep breath. Spring. That’s what May breakfasts really do: They remind us that winter is over. Spring is here. Anything is possible.