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Journal Tribune
Updated November 7, 2019
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Music shop owner donates collection of rock ‘n’ roll books to Cornish library

Cornish resident and Friendly River Music owner John Barton with the collection of about 100 books about rock ‘n’ roll he recently donated to Bonney Memorial Library. DEREK DAVIS/Portland Press Herald

CORNISH — If, for some reason, John Barton can’t recall which Rolling Stones guitarist played the sitar on “Paint it Black” (it was Brian Jones) or needs to fact check the FBI’s investigation into the song “Louie, Louie,” it’s only a quarter-mile from his home on the banks of the meandering Ossippee River to the old brick Bonney Memorial Library in downtown Cornish.

There, in the library’s basement, stacked on a slightly sagging brown bookshelf, are 100 or so volumes from Barton’s personal collection. A fan of the Stones, the Beatles and other rock luminaries whose stories and music he admires, Barton recently donated his rock ‘n’ roll books to his hometown library. “I want to share my books with everyone. If I want to reread something, it’s a short walk,” he said. “I like lending books to my friends and I always get them back. At least now, there’s an opportunity for other people to borrow them and let the library worry about getting them back.”

Barton, 72, is a rock ‘n’ roller from way back. He played guitar at the University of Maine at Orono as a student in the 1960s. “I found out I could make more money playing guitar than washing dishes,” he said. His band, the Cumberlands, played from Boston to Machias and is immortalized with a passing reference in Stephen King’s “Hearts in Atlantis.”

He caught the rock ‘n’ roll bug the same way a lot of kids his age did: He saw the Beatles and Stones on TV. “I thought, ‘Hey, that’s what I want to do.’ ” But the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle wasn’t compatible with domestic life. He married his college sweetheart, Charlene, and they are soon to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

Barton operates Friendly River Music, a funky homespun shop in a barn attached to his house on the border of Cornish and Hiram, where he sells and repairs new and used guitars and ukuleles. Barton also claims one of the best collections of vintage guitars and amps in New England, and showcases a lot of autographed album covers that are not for sale, along with quirky things like a six-pack of Three Stooges beer, a bottle of Elvis Presley wine and a Greg Brady collectible doll.

Over the years, Barton also accumulated books.

“Many of them are out of print and somewhat valuable,” he said, leafing through a copy of “Three Dog Nightmare: The Chuck Negron Story” at the library. “There’s a relatively limited market for this. Who wants to know about the history of Three Dog Night? I did. I found the book, and it’s great.”

The idea of a library donation was seeded last summer when Barton read the 2016 autobiography of Robbie Robertson, guitarist and songwriter for The Band. He loved the book, and especially appreciated the way Robertson described his songwriting process. “He talked about the way Bob Dylan goes about writing music and how it influenced his writing and how it influenced ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’

“It was really fascinating to me, so I asked Bull Moose to round up every hard-bound copy they had so I could give them to my songwriting friends and relatives.”

Not long after, it occurred to him to ask the town librarian, Cheryl Hevey, if the library might want his books.

“Oh, yes, we did,” Hevey said. “We’re a small, rural library. The donation of books really helps.”

Like many librarians in small-town Maine, Hevey can’t afford to purchase many books. She was grateful for the opportunity to add Barton’s rock ‘n’ roll collection to the library’s 15,000 books and other items. Adding a deep, specialized collection distinguishes the library and reflects the interests of the community it serves, she said.

By comparison, the Portland Public Library has about 300 books about rock ‘n’ roll in its collection of about 300,000 items.

Bonney Memorial is a low-slung brick building near the center of a pleasant downtown populated by antique stores, galleries, gift shops and, this time of year, the handsome color of fall. Named after its founder, Sherman Bonney, and in tribute to his parents, the 90-year-old library recently completed an expansion, doubling its space.

Barton’s collection is downstairs, in the original building. The books are housed near the bottom of the stairs, on nondescript shelves marked by a modest computer-generated sign attached to the wall. Since Barton’s donation, other donors have added to the collection, Hevey said.

Barton has lived in Cornish since 1973 and has been a fan of the library just as long. Hevey has always responded to his odd requests. “I wanted to read Thomas Jefferson’s translation of the Bible. You can’t find that everywhere. I asked Cheryl if she could get it, and of course she could get it for me,” he said. “She knows what I might be interested in. She calls, ‘I’ve got this book in. Would you like it?’ I am in here three times a week. It’s a great community center.”

During a recent visit, Barton was pleased to see several empty slots on the shelves, where books were checked out. “That’s great. That’s really great. I’m passionate about this stuff, and it’s nice to see other people are interested too,” he said.

He pointed out a copy of “The Rolling Stones All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track,” by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon. That’s where you’ll learn about Brian Jones and his work with the sitar, that Mick Jagger wrote pretty much all of “Brown Sugar” and that Richards recorded all the guitars on “Street Fighting Man” on a cheap tape recorder.

There are histories of Motown and the Beatles, biographies of Little Richard, Roseanne Cash and Les Paul, and several books dedicated to the history and design of great guitars. The guitar books should be expected. As proprietor of Friendly River Music, Barton is a dedicated collector of vintage American guitars and amps, or what he describes as “American products of enduring value.”

But Friendly River is not just a high-end guitar store. Barton stocks durable entry-level guitars for beginners, and offers free lifetime service to any guitar he sells because he wants all of his customers to have every opportunity to succeed. “We never want anybody not getting their guitar fixed because they can’t afford to,” he said.

He began the business in 1974, the year after he moved to Cornish. Over the 45 years since, his customers have included friends, neighbors and fellow Mainers, as well as nationally touring musicians who often stop in to see what gems he’s turned up since their last visit to Maine. He routinely supplies guitars and equipment when needed at the request of musicians playing nearby at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield.

Over the years, he’s sold guitars to KISS, AC/DC and Motley Crue. Tina Turner and her band were customers in the 1980s, and Cindy Cashdollar, Lakestreet Dive, and John Jorgenson and the Hellecasters have played house concerts and jammed in his shop.

He’s got dozens of guitars hanging from the ceiling and aligned in stands on the floor: Gretsches, Rickenbackers, Fenders, Gibsons, electric and acoustic. He’s got amps from the 1930s and two versions of the uncommonly heavy rosewood Fender Telecaster, the same model that George Harrison played on the Beatles rooftop concert on Jan. 30, 1969, the last Beatles’ performance.

“You can’t pay too much for something that’s really cool,” he said, admiring the Telecaster.

“He is an extremely kind and generous individual who cares deeply about his own community and also about helping out the worldwide community of musicians,” England wrote in an email. “He is a selfless servant who has directly helped some of our students, and we cannot thank him enough for his efforts. Quite frankly, most people are always looking for an exchange when they do this sort of work, but not John. He does it purely for the benefit of humankind.”

Carol Noonan, a musician who operates Stone Mountain Arts Center with her husband, has known Barton more than 25 years, since she moved to Brownfield. As a touring musician, she brought her gear to him to repair. Now, as a music presenter, she depends on him for equipment loans and supplies for the emergency kit for the dressing room – picks and strings and things that guitarists are particular about.

“He knows everything. He knows more about music than I do. He puts me to shame all the time,” Noonan said. “When my band comes up, they love to go to breakfast, and then they go to John’s shop to see what he’s got.”

What impresses her most is that Barton will spend as much time with a kid learning to play as with famous guitarist stopping by to jam. He’ll engage both with equal enthusiasm, Noonan said. “He is just so cool, and his space is cool. To be in the kind of middle of nowhere, it’s kind of a kooky thing that he has always provided this great service,” she said.

Then again, isn’t that Maine, and isn’t John Barton just another example of someone living a quiet, remarkable in a tucked-away corner of the state? At least now, some of his legacy will live forever in his local library.

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