Maine's literature of 'swap or sell'

Maine is a paradise for those interested in odds and ends, bric-a-brac, antiques, and assorted junk. As such, there exists up here a sort of clearinghouse for secondhand items in the form of a weekly publication called Uncle Henry's, a self-described "Swap or Sell It Guide" where you can buy, sell, or trade almost anything imaginable.

Printed on newsprint, Uncle Henry's has the feel of a cheap novel, its ink still sweet when it comes off the presses on Thursday afternoons. It can be found in any convenience store, stacked neatly next to the cash register, where people actually stand around waiting for it to be delivered. It is avidly devoured by the masses, from truck drivers to attorneys, fishermen to architects, making its weekly appearance one of the most democratic events in the state.

But Uncle Henry's is more than a weekly shopper. It is literature. Anyone who's ever read it can tell you this. Although its microscopic ads are divided up into categories such as autos, stoves, building materials, and musical instruments, most folks I know aren't looking for a specific item. They read it cover to cover, the way they would a good book.

I have collected some of the more colorful ads over the years, to give an idea of the flavor of this wonderful periodical. Consider this one, wedged magnificently between a request for old clocks and one for the rear seat of a '79 Ford pickup: "Wanted: fruit trees, dead or alive."

It's an attention-grabber, and it makes one ponder the motives of the writer, the way any good novel would.

The examples of good and entertaining writing are legion. A few years back, when I was looking for a secondhand clarinet for my son, I came across the following, from a clearly frustrated parent: "For sale, clarinet. Cheap. (Now he wants the trumpet!)" And consider this one for a reliable polly: "Free to a good home. Parrot. I let him fly outside and he always comes back (so far)."

The most popular category is FREE FOR THE TAKING. Need a piano? You'll find one here, as touted by one inconvenienced soul: "Piano. Take it. (It's in my way.)" Or this recurring ad for garden enthusiasts: "Free manure! All you want. I'll help you load it!"

When one succeeds in securing an item that hasn't already been sold (the competition is keen), the people one meets frequently add interest to the transaction. Just last year I found a bargain in a woodstove and drove deep into Maine's hill country to pick it up. I arrived at a magnificent cedar home the retired owner had built with his own hands.

Admiring his work, I asked if he was an architect or contractor. He told me he had worked as an aerospace engineer but now owns his own business. The conversation took wing from there, and when we were done, I came away with a $600 woodstove for a song, and a good story to boot.

Although Uncle Henry's contains generally good, practical Yankee stuff like bricks, tires, screw augers, and fishing reels, the esoteric (and expensive) sometimes makes an appearance, in the hope of addressing more bohemian sensibilities. This was the case a couple of years back, when an ad appeared for the mummy of an Egyptian cleric. The asking price was $40,000.

I don't know if any thrifty, utilitarian Mainer answered the ad, but I was impressed with the author's closing gloss, which was straight out of "Becket": "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest! (Call after 6 p.m.)"

The upshot of all this is that Uncle Henry's represents some of the finest literature in the state of Maine, and should be wedged neatly between Longfellow and E.B. White.

I once visited a home where hundreds of the brightly colored volumes lined a shelf, afforded a prominence befitting the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It seemed perfectly appropriate, and before I knew it, I was deep into my reading, wondering how I would ever get through all of them before being asked to leave.

Now that the warm weather has arrived, Uncle Henry's has swelled to robust proportions with the harvests of spring-cleaned barns and attics. As I page through it, my eye is seized by the offer of, of all things, a trolley jack. Yes, I need one of those, don't I? For $10, it's a steal, and once I lug the thing home I'm sure I'll find a use for it. If not, I can always post it for sale again.

It's a wonderful thing to live in a place where nothing ever goes to waste.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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