THORNDIKE, Maine — Parked at a downtown railroad crossing in the tiny rural community of Thorndike is an unlikely destination: Boxcar Books, which may be one of the smallest, and certainly one of the most unique, bookstores in the state.
Thousands of books line the walls of a railroad boxcar that was built in Sweden and shipped to Maine decades ago. A small, potbelly stove kept the narrow space cozy on a blustery November afternoon as short showers of icy rain clinked on the arched metal roof.
The store is the labor of love of Link Harjung, 35, of Troy, whose longtime dream of opening his own bookstore began to take shape when he became friends with the boxcar’s previous owner.
“I always felt they were very romantic spaces,” he said of bookstores. “This is definitely what I would want to do most of the time, if I could.”
Harjung, though, can’t spend all his time in Boxcar Books. It’s very hard to make a living with a small used-book store, so he and his wife, Sofia Harjung, keep it open only on weekends. They spend the rest of their time doing other work and caring for their toddler, Esker. Link Harjung cuts firewood and does some building and farming. Sofia Harjung makes handmade clothes through her business, Tilth.
“This is not profit-driven,” he said of Boxcar Books. “This really is likely to be seen as something of a hobby by people who own bookstores.”
Still, the fact that the bookstore exists at all is a testament to the couple’s creativity as well as a vote of confidence in Thorndike, a small town that is getting smaller. In the last decade, its population shrunk by 13 percent, to 774 people, making it the community with the biggest population decrease in Waldo County. It’s not the job of a small bookstore to buck that kind of population trend. Yet Boxcar Books is beginning to become a weekend destination for book lovers, train enthusiasts and people who just plain appreciate a cool way to reuse a space.
Beth Ineson, the executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association said that as real estate prices go up in the northeast, there is an increasing trend of bookstores that are not located in ordinary spaces. Booksellers are seeking alternative venues, because it’s simply expensive to open up a more traditional bookstore these days, she said.
“People are getting super creative,” she said. “They’re redefining what brick-and-mortar means. Sometimes it’s in a boxcar. And sometimes it’s in a bookmobile, or a pop-up shop that’s in a hair salon.”
Diana Prizio, the executive director of Thorndike’s non-profit Farwell Project, is very glad that Boxcar Books has come to town. Her group is working to bring energy back to the community she has bluntly described as a “ghost town.”
“I really do think the town could come back to life,” she told the Bangor Daily News several years ago.
Although Boxcar Books isn’t directly connected to the Farwell Project, in a way it does exist because of it. The Harjungs are singer-songwriters who traveled the country before landing in Maine in the last decade. The couple initially lived in Portland before they were drawn to Waldo County.
“We fell in love with quirky things, like Liberty Tool and the Bryant Stove Museum,” Link Harjung said. “Maine, especially this part of Maine, feels like one of the last little holdouts where it’s not part of the megalopolis yet.”
After they settled in Troy, he volunteered with the Farwell Project and became friends with Prizio, who owned the boxcar. She had purchased it from the late Unity philanthropist Bert Clifford, who had come across a train while traveling in Sweden and decided to bring it home to Maine.
Prizio used the boxcar primarily for storage, but imagined that it would make a great bookstore. One day Link Harjung was helping her clear it out and heard her idea, and eventually bought the boxcar from her. He opened the bookstore in August 2019, in advance of the Common Ground Fair that September. The event normally brings thousands of people through Thorndike, but has been held virtually for the last two years because of the pandemic.
“I definitely love Thorndike. I do see that the center of town could be more active,” Harjung said, adding that something about the community struck him from the first time he saw it. “I thought it was such an interesting little village, with the web of tracks and the beautiful old buildings. You can tell it was the center of something.”
The bookstore is located in between the Farwell complex and Garden Variety, a store that Prizio runs. They are among a cluster of village businesses that do seem to create a critical mass — albeit a small one — in Thorndike.
“I just love it,” Prizio said of the bookstore. “I always wanted to open a bookstore in a boxcar. It was a lot more fun to have them do it.”
Boxcar Books, located at 29 Gordon Hill Road in Thorndike, is open from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Saturdays and from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Sundays.