The Value of Road Trips

One of the owners of the Unicorn Bookstore.
One of the owners of the Unicorn Bookstore.

I used to think that the best rides – mostly by motorcycle – were long, elaborately planned missions that took time and much deliberation and savored in anticipation.

My attitude has changed over time, however, and now I see the value in shorter rides, in road trips, and what you find along the way.

One of my first road trips was with my friend Van, one of the best people I’ve ever known. We met in 1975 on my first date with his cousin. She later became my first wife, then my first divorce, and dropped out of my life. But Van and I had become good friends and have stayed that way, to this day.

We always talked about doing a road trip, but the opportunity didn’t materialize until September 1994. We both found ourselves with no obligations over a long weekend, so I drove from my place in Sandusky, Ohio, to his house in Morgantown, West Virginia.

This was in my early days of motorcycle riding; I had my first bike, a 1974 Honda CB750 that I didn’t trust for a long ride and so my Chevy Corsica was the vehicle of choice. We drove east, to the coast. It had been too long since either of us had seen the Atlantic, so we decided on Ocean City, Maryland.

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It was a good drive. We stopped at Antietam National Battlefield, which was fascinating and emotionally moving. That’s worth another visit. We made it to Ocean City, stayed a day, and headed back.

I don’t know how we found it, but we saw a used-book store on U.S. 50 in Trappe, Maryland. It was called the Unicorn Bookshop, and (since we’re both bibliophiles) we had to stop.

What a perfect bookstore. It was literally crammed with books, the shelves packed and books stacked in the aisles and hallways so you had to edge yourself carefully around the bookcases, like a mountain climber wary of starting an avalanche. But it was organized enough that you could find the subject matter that interested you and still stumble across something interesting on the floor. And it was church-quiet, no corporate-mandated music blaring from hidden speakers, just the buzz of fluorescent lights in the ceiling.

I was hunting for motorcycle-related books in those days (still am) and I found a copy of Bike Fever by Lee Gutkind. It’s still in my collection today. I was happy to score it, and we went home satisfied.

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Fast-forward 10 years and I’m now married to Linda and we’ve been living outside of Washington, D.C., for four years. We take our first trip to the coast, on U.S. 50. To my astonishment, Unicorn is still there.

Inside, it’s exactly the same. Just for chuckles, I find the motorcycle shelf in the same place and by God, there’s another copy of Bike Fever. I buy it.

The counter still has an ancient Burroughs adding machine. The guy carefully writes up the purchase on a carbon-copy receipt and gives it to me. I drive home in wonder.

Fast-forward to January 2014, another 10 years later. Linda has found some antique stores in Salisbury, Maryland, so we plan a three-day weekend. Looking at the map, I see we’ll be on U.S. 50 again.

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And Unicorn is still there, unchanged, I mean really unchanged, like a Twilight Zone episode. That’s astounding, if you think about it. Small businesses don’t last and bookstores vanish more quickly than an April snowfall. And yet, here it is, still cramped and quiet, reminding me of the shop Alice visited in Through the Looking Glass, the shop with the sheep. I visit the motorcycle shelf again, fully expecting to find a third copy of Bike Fever, but it isn’t there. Perhaps there are limits to synchronicity.

But I find books, as I always do, including some for Van. I’ll give them to him soon, with Unicorn business cards slipped in the pages.

Unicorn probably isn’t a magical place that’s stopped in a backwater of Time, but there is something special about it. It’s the kind of thing you can only find on a road trip.

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