LIBERTY, Maine - If it weren't for Skip Brack, it's likely this little town, a dip in the road off Route 3 inland from Belfast, would be bypassed by all but the handful of folks who call it home. Between 1976 and 1986, Brack purchased and restored Liberty's downtown buildings - all three of them - and created a must-stop shop for tradespeople, collectors, renovators, and home hobbyists.
Liberty Tool occupies the three-story building that once housed the Liberty Village General Store, which had a rooming house on the second floor and a dance floor on the third. These days, tools fill every nook and cranny of the first floor and mingle with antiques, books, and what-have-you on the upper floors. Across the street, the former Banks' Garage has been reborn as a power-tool annex. Upstairs, in a former Masonic Hall, Brack established the Davistown Museum.
For nearly 40 years, Brack has scoured New England attics and cellars for early Native American and Colonial-era tools to buy, restore, resell, or display. "My only forte is sniffing out what's been left behind by others," Brack says. The rarest and the best finds he saves for private sale or to display in the museum, his labor of love; the rest go to his tool emporium.
Liberty Tool's stock includes everyday tools as well as hard-to-find, specialized ones desired by shipbuilders, housewrights, chairmakers, and coopers. Liberty also helps outfit blacksmiths, tinsmiths, watchmakers, jewelers, weavers, tool-and-die makers, and engravers. Beyond specialists, it lures weekend renovators and hobbyists who know they can find brand-name tools in good condition.
No other shop has the quantity, quality, prices, or such persnickety organization. Every tool has been cleaned, restored, and grouped by type on shelves and in drawers, bins, and barrels: flat files, round files with handles, triangular files with handles, large rasps, and so on. And every tool is labeled with a rock-bottom price. "No dickering," Brack insists.
Liberty isn't just about tools. When cleaning out a house, Brack finds "perhaps three to 10 tools of significance and 200 other objects that help pay the bills." He fills the upper floors with the surplus and salvage: antique and used furniture, old books, magazines, glassware, pottery, toys, and collectibles.
The "tools of significance" often end up in the museum, which reflects Brack's passions for historical memorabilia, environmental activism, and contemporary art. Native American, Colonial, and industrial-era tools and artifacts share space with contemporary sculptures and paintings by artists such as Louise Nevelson, Phil Barter, Melita Westerlund, and David McLaughlin, and historical artifacts and documents from Liberty and adjacent Montville, once collectively known as the Davistown Plantation.
"All museums love to do exhibits on who sailed which ships where, but they don't ask about the cargo, how it was made and the tools used to make it," Brack says. Explaining those connections and the stories behind the artifacts and interpreting New England's history through them is the museum's niche. It's a place where the subtle links between history, tools, and art -the historical, the practical, and the aesthetic - are, well, hammered out.
Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer in Waldoboro, Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.