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The well-seasoned bookseller

I'VE GOT to tell you about Leon Tebbetts, because he never will. When it comes to limelighting himself, he gets weak in the knees. Leon is my neighbor. He lives with thousands of books. The ones in his walk-up apartment are his. The ones downstairs in his antique bookshop are yours - if you've got a dollar or so in your pocket, or a keen gleam of appreciation for literature in your eye. There are some 40 shops selling old books in Maine nowadays, but Leon's was one of the first and has a character all its own. It is wedged between Water Street and the Kennebec River in a rather curious 18th-century city called Hallowell. The town is populated with some 2,000 people, many of whom, unlike Leon, come from what Mainers call ``away.''

Leon started the business 30 years ago with 3,000 books that his sister Beulah picked up ``by mistake'' when she lost her head in the heat of an auction. Now, some 10,000 seasoned volumes fill the shop's tilting shelves. There is just enough order to the collection so that you do not go crazy searching for fiction in the history section. Yet there is just enough disorder to make you feel as if you are on a treasure hunt. I always find surprises - like the day I discovered that the shelves in the poetry corner are very deep, so deep that the books there are two layers thick.

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Leon is like his shop: well-seasoned and full of unspectacular but dear surprises. They emerge one by one. Each is a modest promise that urges me to return, thinking that, just perhaps, there might be still more.

If I cannot find Leon in his shop, I have learned to climb up two flights of stairs and knock on the door to his studio. There he will be, up to something or other - typing his memoirs on the old Remington, digging up a bit of history about Hallowell, sorting through the massive old scrapbook of newsclippings from his journalism days.... Whatever, he always has time to visit, or so he tells those of us who knock.

With Leon, one talks of what is possible, more than of what's probable. As soon as we get going on our art, film, or publishing schemes, Leon's self-professed shyness drops, and he talks enthusiastically about marvelous insights that come when one throws caution to the wind and gallops off to follow raging curiosity. When he speaks, his wild gray brows brush the frames of his eyeglasses. His right lens is forever missing, making that eye appear even brighter blue than the left. The fellow claims that he is very old. But those eyes are so alive that I think he is also very young.

Most often Leon speaks of himself with understated modesty in a voice one has to lean toward to hear. Meanwhile, his studio spills the beans about the man's life and character. It is a delightfully chaotic room, jumping with life, tumbling over with objects of Leon's devotions, dreams, and accomplishments: that vintage Remington typewriter, 8- and 16mm projectors, reel after reel of film, artwork signed ``Tebbetts'' or simply ``LT,'' and photos of old friends alongside a young Leon whose prosaic face could break your heart. A variety of adopted cats roam the place, and books congregate in every available nook.

Stashed beside the drafting table, beneath some papers and books, is an organ. Leon bought it years ago, thinking it might make good accompaniment for his weekend showings of silent films. The room has long functioned simultaneously as a theater, classroom, writing den, art studio, gallery, and parlor. To anyone who has eyes, this studio reveals that Leon does not dabble in this or that; he dives in head first.

Still, unless you think to ask, Leon will not tell you that 400 of the books on the studio shelves he has published himself. Nor will he mention that he is the author and illustrator of several of them. And he will probably omit saying that among his vast collection of classic silent films stand films he has made himself.

One of his own movies is about our town. Unlike the famous play about another town, it is not a tale of someone who loved a place after being separated from it. Rather, it is evidence that a people, and one man in particular, had some foresight.

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WHEN Leon came inland to Hallowell, after living by the coast, there were two antique shops here, a couple of dying businesses, a string of tattered buildings, and a buried but fascinating history. According to Betty, who owns the antique shop across from Leon, ``Back then most residents thought the salvation for this city was to tear down Water Street and put in a shopping center.'' That almost happened. In keeping with the 1960s notion that progress meant out with the old and in with the entirely new, the city council voted for urban renewal. Legend has it that when the bulldozers arrived to level the town's main street, the usually subdued Leon threw himself in their path.

That is almost true. In truth, Leon used his pen, not his body. He had his own concept of progress, maybe because he had lived a long and varied life. Whatever the reason, to him progress meant salvaging the best of one age and carrying it into the promise of the next. He was the sort of fellow who periodically wrote, mimeographed, and distributed from his bookshop flyers about how historically special Hallowell was. Now, in the impending shadow of urban renewal, he retreated to his studio, pulled out a legal pad, and drafted the first of his famous ``yellow sheets'' - strong condemnations of the urban renewal plan, based on the historical significance and latent beauty of the venerable city. Copies were made, and the old journalist and a handful of plucky heritage-minded citizens pamphletted their neighbors.

Leon is a trusting sort of radical. ``If people have enough information, they will make wise choices,'' he contends. He was right. His papers stirred a furor among the local citizenry. They flocked to the zoning meeting and voted down the renewal plan.

Since then, most of Hallowell's old buildings, one by one, have had face lifts. (Tebbetts's old bookshop, among others, remains unpolished - but firmly standing.) Although the town is by no stretch of the imagination a Williamsburg, it has become the sort of place people drive long distances to visit. Leon's bookstore, along with a cleaned-up river, a dozen antique shops, and several homey caf'es, draw visitors in the summer and hold on to us locals year-round.

A couple of years ago, when Hallowell residents wanted to celebrate all Leon had done to help resuscitate their town, they planned a Leon Tebbetts night at Slates restaurant, the local hangout. ``Only he's so humble we couldn't call it that or he wouldn't have come,'' muses Betty. ``And once he'd come, we couldn't tell him directly how we felt or he'd have left. What we felt was that Leon was a man who had vision before most of us....''

In truth, she said much more, but not wanting to make Leon weak in the knees, I'll end here.

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