HOULTON, Maine — Lynn York wore many hats in his lifetime, but it was his passion for the community of Houlton that most remember about him.
His warm smile and desire to see the town grow drew generations to his family’s book store in downtown Houlton for nearly five decades. He was also an integral part of bringing a number of famous performers to southern Aroostook County through his work with the Houlton Fair.
In an age before the internet, the quaint bookshop started by York’s parents was the quintessential place to stay up to date on national events, thanks in part to a large selection of newspapers and magazines the store carried. It was also the spot to purchase books, comic books, greeting cards and gifts. York died unexpectedly in his Houlton home Monday, April 11, at the age of 77.
The peak of the store was in 1979, when the company had around 2,600 book titles on the shelves, York said during a 2014 interview with Houlton Pioneer Times. The advancement of technology and the internet proved to be a crushing blow to the bookstore, as has been true with some other industries.
As technology sent more and more people to places like Amazon for their books, the number of paperback and hardcover books in his store dwindled to around 800 by the time he closed shop in July 2014.
“It has got to be done because it’s time is done,” York said in 2014.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, York enlisted in the Army in 1968 and spent two tours in Vietnam. York had brought home a large collection of O-rings — large, metal rings used to support cargo dropped from helicopters — from his time of service in Vietnam. He had recently begun passing them out to people who were important to him.
York returned to Houlton in 1971, and went to work at the bookstore opened by his parents, Malcolm and Muriel York, while also serving as a substitute teacher. In 1973, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for two years.
But his family heritage called him back to Houlton in 1975, and he took over the family business — Yorks Books, which had become a staple of Houlton’s historic downtown. In its heyday, it was one of the most beloved shops in the region. York’s mother worked at the store until she was in her late 80s, while his father worked into his 90s.
One of York’s prized possessions was his Harley Davidson motorcycle. He was often seen in the summer months riding through the downtown. He kept his motorcycle inside his house for safekeeping during the winter months.
“He loved that bike so much,” his niece Diane York said. “It is sitting in the living room of his house.”
His niece Susan York said her uncle gave her some solid business advice that she continues to follow to this day.
“He believed in giving folks a chance and investing in them,” she said. “He knew that I was passionate about kids books while I was working there and he said ‘I’ll give you a $100 to invest in stock. Let’s see what you can do with it.’ His trust in me helped me land a job at the best bookstore in Boston.”
He hired a lot of people who went on to own businesses with his encouragement, she said.
York was also known for connections he had made in the music industry and was key to bringing such acts as the Charlie Daniels Band, Kris Kristofferson and the Forester sisters to Houlton as part of the Houlton Fair in the 1980s.
York formed a lasting friendship with Charlie Daniels, who invited him to his hotel room in Bangor when he appeared for a concert at the former Bangor Auditorium, Diane York said.
Paul Cleary worked closely with York through their time with the Houlton Agricultural Fair.
“Lynn was a great guy that was always willing to help and helped a lot of people,” Cleary said. “He knew everyone and if you needed anything he had a contact with a story on how he met them. Lynn was a great resource for me, and a friend and a confidant. I will miss him a lot. Houlton lost a true ambassador.”
All three of York’s nieces worked at the store, where they learned valuable lessons on customer service.
“You had to be sure you knew how to wrap presents with nice creases if you worked in the store,” Jody York said. “And all the bills (in the cash register) had to face the bank.”
Word of York’s passing prompted an outpouring of support from the community.
“There was never a day when I was downtown preparing for some event that Lynn did not stop, and ask what I was doing and if he could help,” said Jane Torres, executive director of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. “Of course that always turned into a tale of some great life experience he had had.”
Torres said after his business closed, York continued to set up a table in downtown Houlton each summer for the annual Midnight Madness celebration, where he gained a new name as the “snow cone” man.
“We will miss his snow cones at Midnight Madness, the light sabers he provided for the children and his generous donation year after year to make sure the fireworks in Riverfront Park would happen for his community,” Torres said.
Robyn Nickerson Skvorak, a former resident of Houlton who worked at Yorks Books while in high school, said employees became family and were treated like royalty.
“There was never a dull moment working there. You might walk in to work at the bookstore and end up setting up a tent in the countryside or making snow cones to sell on the sidewalk,” Skvorak said.
The Maine Veterans Project also posted a tribute to York on its Facebook page. “Like many Vietnam veterans, Lynn carried the heavy burden of PTSD and anxiety. Lynn’s family is devastated by his loss, and through mourning they wish this message helps others struggling.”
Instead of flowers, the family asked for donations to be sent to the Maine Veterans Project, 207 Parkview Avenue, Bangor, Maine 04401. At his request, there was no funeral service. A graveside service will be held at a later date.