HOULTON, Maine – Lynn York of Houlton wore many hats throughout his life, but it was his passion for the Houlton community that was most remembered.
His warm smile and desire to see the city grow drew generations to his family’s bookstore in downtown Houlton for nearly five decades. Through his work with the Houlton Fair, he was also instrumental in bringing a number of famous artists to southern Aroostook County.
In a pre-internet era, the quaint bookshop started by York’s parents was the perfect place to catch up on national events, thanks in part to a wide selection of newspapers and magazines the store stocked. It was also the place to buy books, comics, greeting cards and gifts. York died unexpectedly at his home in Houlton on Monday April 11, aged 77.
The store’s peak was in 1979, when the company had around 2,600 book titles on its shelves, York said in a 2014 interview with the Houlton Pioneer Times. The advances in technology and the Internet proved to be a devastating blow to the book trade, as it was to some other industries.
As technology sent more and more people to places like Amazon for their books, the number of paperbacks and hardbacks in his store dwindled to about 800 by the time it closed in July 2014.
“It has to be done because time is up,” York said in 2014.
A Vietnam War veteran, York enlisted in the Army in 1968 and served two deployments in Vietnam. York had brought home a large collection of O-rings — large metal rings used to support cargo dropped from helicopters — from his service in Vietnam. He had recently started distributing them to people he cared about.
York returned to Houlton in 1971 and worked in the bookstore opened by his parents, Malcolm and Muriel York, while also serving as a substitute teacher. In 1973 he moved to Washington, DC, where he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for two years.
But his family legacy called him back to Houlton in 1975 and he took over the family business – Yorks Books – which had become an integral part of historic downtown Houlton. In its heyday it was one of the most popular shops in the area. 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 most prized possessions was his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He was often seen riding through the city center in the summer months. He kept his motorcycle at his home during the winter months for safekeeping.
“He loved that bike so much,” said his niece, Diane York. “It’s in the living room of his house.”
York was also known for its connections in the music industry and was key in bringing acts such 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 Bangor hotel room when he was performing for a concert at the former Bangor Auditorium, Diane York said.
Paul Cleary worked closely with York during her time at Houlton Agricultural Fair.
“Lynn was a great guy who was always willing to help and has helped a lot of people,” Cleary said. “He knew everyone and if you needed anything he had a touch with a story of how he met them. Lynn has been a great resource to me and a friend and confidant. I will miss him very much. Houlton has lost a true ambassador.”
Both of York’s nieces worked at the store, where they learned valuable lessons in customer service.
“You had to be sure that you knew how to fold presents nicely when you were working in the store,” said Jody York. “And all the bills (in the register) had to go to the bank.”
News of York’s death triggered a surge of support from the community.
“There wasn’t a day I was preparing for an event downtown that Lynn didn’t stop and ask what I was doing and if he could help,” said Jane Torres, chief executive of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. “Of course that always turned into a story about a great life experience that he had.”
Torres said after his shop closed, York continued to set a table in downtown Houlton each summer for the annual Midnight Madness celebration, where he got a new nickname as the “Snow Cone” man.
“We will miss his snow cones at Midnight Madness, the lightsabers he provided for the children to use, and his generous donation that keeps the Riverfront Park fireworks show up for his community year after year,” Torres said.
Robyn Nickerson Skvorak, a former Houlton resident who worked at Yorks Books while she was in school, said the staff have become family and are treated like royalty.
“It never got boring working there. You could go to the bookstore to work and end up setting up a tent on the land 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 has carried the heavy burden of PTSD and anxiety. Lynn’s family is devastated by his loss and in their sadness they wish this news to help others who are struggling.”
In lieu of flowers, the family asked for donations to the Maine Veterans Project, 207 Parkview Avenue, Bangor, Maine 04401. At his request, no funeral service was held. A funeral service will take place at a later date.