BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT: Rodgers Book Barn—a place you’ll return to, like a good book

“Old and Unusual Books, Bought and Sold”—Rodgers Book Barn, Hillsdale, New York

“The Book Barn is a national treasure.” —E.L. Doctorow

“I’ve always been around books,” Maureen Rodgers states. As a teenager in North London, she bicycled with friends to browse the used bookstores. Whatever treasures she found for a sixpence rode home in her bike basket. Her favorite finds were adventure stories by Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome.

Those experiences growing up, and the feelings they evoke even now, inspired her to start her own bookstore—and have affordable prices. “I try to keep things fair,” she says, “in line with my belief that even if you don’t have much money, you can still build up a good library collection of your own.”

After 50 years, founder Maureen Rodgers still enjoys talking to people and helping them find good reads. Photo by Robbi Hartt
She came to the U.S. in the 1960s—during her early 20s—to work and have a “great adventure” with a like-minded friend. “We thought we’d live and work in the States for a year—it was a thing young people often did,” she explains, adding, “We lived in New York City, and I worked all kinds of jobs, mostly waitressing and that sort of thing.” She also tried to find opportunities that dealt with her lifelong passion. One such position was in the used books department of Barnes & Noble. Another involved working in the library at the New School, as well as for a company that was looking to put together a library.

Customers browse the entry room on a fall Sunday afternoon. Photo by Robbi Hartt
After a while, she developed an eye for collecting used books on certain subjects and began creating little catalogs and sending them out to college libraries that were looking for missing items to enhance their collections. She continued that work for some time but found it hard to make enough money to live on—particularly during the summer months when libraries took a hiatus from buying books.

She and her former husband, Harold A. Rodgers, moved from the city to the Berkshires in the late 60s, buying “an old falling-down farmhouse and an old falling-down barn” at 467 Rodman Road in Hillsdale (N.Y.) and renovating it. They opened Rodgers Book Barn in 1972—”just in the front part of the barn to see if it would work,” Maureen notes. “We turned out the hay and put in books.”

“I could tell it was going to work better than sending catalogs to college libraries, and it suited my skills and lifestyle better,” Maureen continues. Gradually, the couple renovated more parts of the barn into rooms that could house books. “People found us mostly by word of mouth,” she notes. They also posted signs on the main road and ran ads in the local paper. “It took a few years to really catch on, so I kept making my catalogs and selling books on the side, but from spring to fall, the barn was open.”

The old stove is a quaint focal point amidst endless shelves of books—and it provides warmth when needed. Photo by Robbi Hartt
It took a few years to winterize the barn, but by 1975, they could see it would be successful and added insulation and a wood stove. Their customers included serious book collectors, guests of locals looking for something to do, and tourists exploring Columbia County for the first time who heard about the barn or stumbled on it (or the sign) by accident.

At one time, the shop had over 50,000 titles, although now the number is closer to 20,000. “I took out a lot of books and bookcases during and after the pandemic to create more space for people to move around,” Rodgers explains.

Where does she get her books? “I do go to estate sales, but more for fun,” Rodgers explains. For more earnest browsing, she ‘checks out’ local library book sales. “I was at the New Marlborough branch sale just last month,” she recalls the rainy Saturday. And after 50 years in business, Rodgers naturally knows a lot of people in the trade. Since COVID, she’s also had many generous donors, which she admits has been wonderful.

How does she know how to price her finds? “A lot of it is based on experience, if I’ve seen it before,” she answers. “I try to ignore all the craziness online, but if I find something scarce, I check it out and price it accordingly.”

Her trusted assistant, Kate Staples, is exceptionally well-read and ready to help customers or shelve books every workday. “I own the barn, but we run it together,” Rodgers points out.

‘Does it ever get old?‘ you may wonder. “I love to find interesting books and talk to interesting people in the barn,” she acknowledges. “Look at today—I’m sitting out in the sunshine on a lovely afternoon pricing books.” She just finished reading Abraham Verghese’s “The Covenant of Water” and equally enjoys fiction and non-fiction.

Between naps, Sappho the cat patrols the aisles and grounds. Photo by Robbi Hartt
If you venture out to Hillsdale (the fall color is gorgeous right now), be sure to allow enough time to look not only for the books on your list, but also at all of the ‘fascinating little things’ Rodgers has collected over the years to enrich each subject matter—for example, bird bookends to hold up the bird books. “I try to make it comfortable for people to stay for a couple hours,” she notes (and based on my observations, they do just that!)

When you go, do yourself a favor—leave your phone in the car so you can nestle into a comfy chair in a corner and lose track of time between the covers of whatever genre books you fancy most. If it’s a nice day, you’re welcome to bring your lunch and sit under the arbor or lie in the hammock. If it’s chilly, no worries—the wood stove will be turned on, and Sappho the cat (so named because Rodgers was reading Sappho for the first time when she got her) will likely be curled up somewhere to make you feel at home.

The ‘teapot honor system’ under the arbor or in the yellow shack. Photo by Robbi Hartt
Beyond the rabbit warren of rooms filled to the rafters in the barn, more books can be found in the yellow shack (for $1 each) and on the table under the arbor (50 cents each). Just put the money in the teapot, as the signs instruct, when you find the book that was waiting for you. I highly recommend taking a stroll down the road from the book barn to Honey Dog Farm, where the view of the road winding between the two barns will surely fill your soul.

Honey Dog Farm is a short, scenic amble from the Book Barn. Photo by Robbi Hartt
Need more convincing? Here are just a few of the many choice reviews by customers who have appreciated the ability to “create their own library collections” over the years:

Strolling the grounds reveals unexpected treasures. Photo by Robbi Hartt
“I was advised by a bookstore owner in Albany that I should make a point of checking out Rodger’s Book Barn. I checked into a hotel for the night and eagerly anticipated a morning of book browsing. I was a bit crestfallen as I came around the corner and saw the barn. I thought it was too small to have many books. I went inside, and immediately, a book caught my eye, and then another, and another, and 4 hours later, I had 50 books I couldn’t wait to dig into… What a wonderful lady, and what a great assortment of books she has in that little barn! It is SO worth the time and effort to find this remarkable gem.” — Tripadvisor review, Chapel Hill, N.C.

“It is nearly impossible to leave without at least a few books in hand. With a wide array of fiction, criticism, memoir, biography, and history, Rodgers jokes that the Book Barn has everything, ‘but never the book you want.’” — Meredith Blake, from “A Visit to The Book Barn” (in The New Yorker, 2010)

“50,000 used books, some music CD’s, garden, wood stove.”—Hillsdale website

“This isn’t a fancy store with ludicrous markups; this is your grandmother’s personal library with price tags. Price tags that have not adjusted for inflation. Price tags that have not adjusted at all. By sparing the glamour of marketing strategies we’ve grown accustomed to, we can explore a simpler time. The charm of this whimsical place is tucked into every single nook and cranny, no space is wasted, no corner unemployed. This is so much more than a bookstore. This is a different way of life… You come for the books, but you stay for the feeling. Everything in here gently urges you to “take your coat off and stay a while.” — Antonina, of Embrace Someplace 

Whether you’re a devoted bibliophile or someone who enjoys stepping back in time every once in a while, Rodgers Book Barn is the perfect place to visit for a cup of tea, a bit of nostalgia, and a guaranteed armful of well-priced books to add to your home collection. It’s sure to be an experience you’ll long remember.

Hours (per the website):Friday-Sunday 11-4:30 p.m.“Other times by chance or appointment.”

Lest you think an ‘old barn’ means controlled chaos, the books are organized, and the experience user-friendly. Photo by Robbi Hartt

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