How a bookseller fell in love with Chestertown
If Tom Martin were to write his memoirs, the story of his life would be at home on any number of shelves at The Bookplate, the shop he has owned in Chestertown, Md. since 2004. You might find it among tomes on international peace campaigns, not far from accounts by Jimmy Carter, or in the Chesapeake Bay collection, side by side with works by Eastern Shore author Tom Horton.
And if the story, which turns on a fortuitous passage featuring hairdressers, were released during the current chapter of Martin’s 71 years, you’d find it among accounts of passionate bookstore owners, from Sylvia Beach in Paris to Larry McMurtry in Archer City, Texas. There’s even a casual acquaintance with the legendary cartoonist R. Crumb—of Keep on Truckin’ fame—whose sister, Carol Veronica Degennaro, lived in nearby Rock Hall until her death in May 2020.
Though Martin says it’s unlikely that he’ll commit the life of Detroit-born Thomas David Martin on paper anytime soon (if ever), it might be his next unexpected move when he decides to walk out of The Bookplate for the last time.
He’s made unexpected moves before. Take that one day some two decades ago when he made a sharp break with politics and the advocating of important-though-quixotic causes, like persuading the nations of the world to stop killing each other.
“I’d been traveling around the world for 20 years—Central America and Palestine, and drinking too much,” said Martin of the moment in his mid-50s. “I had to sit down and analyze where I was in my life.”
On a trip to the now-defunct chain bookstore Borders, a sign caught his eye: Bookseller Wanted. Remembered Martin, “I thought, ‘Screw it, I need a change.” And he took the job.
“It was meant as a lark,” he said. As so often happens, the lark became his life.
After a spell with Borders, he went to work for Olsson’s Books and Records in Georgetown, which closed in 2002. The shuttering of brick-and-mortar bookstores, both national chains and independent shops, has continued apace for decades. Yet, two years after Olsson’s closed (and with the same “what the hell” attitude with which he’d made previous pivots), Martin founded The Bookplate at 112 South Cross Street in Chestertown.
But first, the hairdressers.
“The people who did my wife’s hair in D.C. had a place in Chestertown and they said, ‘You’ve got to come to Chestertown.’ We didn’t know where
it was but went anyway. They had another salon across the street from
a building they owned that was vacant and said, ‘Why don’t you open a bookstore?’”
Again, why not? But first Martin had some serious crabbing to do, with a guy named Dave who he’d met at a regular gathering of folks who once drank like fish and decided a more responsible life was in everyone’s
“He didn’t have anybody to work on his boat that summer and I said, ‘What about me?’” said Martin. The waterman laughed it off—are you kidding me?—but when he couldn’t find anyone else to take the job, the aspiring bookmonger came aboard.
“I’d work the crab boat from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then come in here and build shelves the rest of the day,” said Martin, who can be seen baiting crab pots on the vessel in a Marc Castelli watercolor behind the store’s counter.
Castelli is an Eastern Shore institution and his scenes of life on the water there are treasured, as he is, said a fellow artist on the shore, “trusted by the people he paints because he gets to know the watermen.”
But a Castelli is not a Crumb, a distinction even the store’s black cat Keke (or a very stoned Fritz the
“It’s a real treat when a cultural icon you’ve grown up with visits your store every time he’s in town,” said Martin, though since the death of Crumb’s sister it’s unlikely the longtime resident of Sauve, France will be stopping by again.
Between the watercolor of Martin the crabber’s apprentice and the customer side of the register, you will find Emily Kalwaitis—native of the Garden State, a high school library page once upon a time and, for the past seven years, store manager of The Bookplate and its 11,000 volumes.
“We’re pretty well known for our local collection,” said Kalwaitis. “Many of our customers are visitors to the area passing through. They’re enraptured by the area and want to know more about it.”
Thus, books about the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore are always in demand and sell just behind works of general fiction.
“We sell a lot of [James] Michener’s Chesapeake and Chestertown local Kate Livie’s Chesapeake Oysters,” said Kalwaitis, a visual artist who has made many portraits of authors that hang in the store as well as commissions
Martin, who once had a near complete collection of books by Nobel laureates in stock, has freely received thousands of books from downsizing locals, along with the personal library of the late Washington College English professor Ralph Thornton (1920-2020), who included the gift in his will.
“You could just tell that the man loved books,” said Martin, noting that Thornton only wrote in the books with pencil. “Lots of literary criticism on poets I’d never heard of, all in their original dust jackets from obscure Irish presses, obscure English presses.”
Of his pursuit of inventory, Martin said, “I’m like a baseball manager; I’ll take the best player available no matter what position they play. Whatever the subject, I’ll go with the best they’ve got.”
Chestertown writer Ellen Uzelac frequents The Bookplate regularly and takes guests there when they
are visiting the riverside seat of Kent County.
“Going to Bookplate is like falling down a rabbit hole in a good way,” said Uzelac. “Room after room, aisle after aisle—an endless array. No matter who I’ve taken there, no one has walked out without at least a couple of books.