If you had to pick, which stretch of highway from your childhood is most clearly imprinted on your brain? For me, it’s the fifteen miles on I-84 where Connecticut blends into Massachusetts, home to two of my favorite unconventional but uniquely New England attractions.
Drive 11 miles north of the border on the Massachusetts side and you’ll hit Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor interactive 19th-century history museum with guided tours and butter churning demonstrations that made it a must-visit for every semi-local school teacher planning a field trip at the turn of the millennium.
Drive a couple miles in the opposite direction and you’ll pass Union, Connecticut (population: less than 1,000), home of an even more wondrous attraction: the beloved Traveler Restaurant, an eatery whose mission statement is clearly visible from the highway: FOOD AND BOOKS.
The food is self-explanatory, but the books are not.
Back in the 1980s, Traveler Restaurant’s owner, Marty Doyle, was struggling with an overabundance of reading material. A bibliophile who came of age during the Depression, Marty had amassed an impressive personal library with volumes numbering into the thousands, and he was concerned his collection might soon overtake his home. He moved a few thousand books into the restaurant, and encouraged every person who entered to take one home with them—even if they were only stopping by to use the restroom.
Marty envisioned his restaurant becoming a lending library of sorts, with each book out on permanent loan until the customer saw fit to return for more food or additional reading material. But six months after incorporating books into the restaurant’s business model, Marty realized many of the donations he had received were too valuable to give away for free. He transformed the restaurant’s cellar into a bookstore, hired a former librarian to run the place, and acquired a large collection of rare books.
When the restaurant changed hands in the ’90s, Traveler’s new owners, Karen and Art Murdock, inherited the books along with the business and decided to double down on the literary motif. Today, every customer who partakes of their menu is allowed to select three free pieces of reading material to take home with them. The Murdocks estimate that since they took over, the restaurant has given away close to 100,000 books every year. I estimate that in my time growing up and eating there with my family, I contributed significantly to that figure in the form of second hand copies of Baby-Sitters Club books.
Facebook page notwithstanding, Traveler’s owners don’t advertise much. They don’t need to. The restaurant’s unmissable sign and prime location off the last Connecticut exit on that fated stretch of I-84 make it the perfect rest spot for road trippers and passing celebrities. Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray, Bruce Springsteen, and countless other travelers, famous and not, have all pulled off the interstate en route to or from Boston or New York City, lured by the siren song of snacks, entertainment, and clean bathrooms.
While Traveler Restaurant is an enticing prospect for out-of-towners, the business is ultimately a family one, and the food and ambiance reflect that. Bookshelves flank tables, and customers are encouraged to get up and explore the stacks while they await the arrival of their food. The menu is a nod to American pragmatism, leaning heavily on sandwiches (with literary names), finger foods, and diner entrees you can consume with one hand while leaving the other free to turn pages.
This no-frills approach to dining leaves management free to spend their time tracking down the restaurant’s special ingredient: more books. It isn’t always an easy endeavor. In 1991, Marty Doyle took The New Yorker through one notable misadventure in which he and his crew attempted to buy 35,000 used books from a New Hampshire minister for $500, only to discover the books were primarily textbooks and therefore useless to him. These days, the staff is able to restock more easily thanks to donations from local libraries, which are transported in a 16-foot horse trailer and truck.
Connecticut is rightfully criticized for catering to its absurdly wealthy inhabitants, but those rich people only make up a fraction of the state’s population. For me, Traveler Restaurant represents the Connecticut I grew up in, one that is working class, humble, and only slightly repressed. Despite being filled to the brim with books, the dining experience at Traveler Restaurant is free from pretension and thoroughly lacking in wood-burning fireplaces. The best seat in the house overlooks a lake, and in the book cellar, well-worn children’s books are displayed just as prominently as the special edition copies of literary classics.
I’m writing this from Los Angeles, almost 3,000 miles away from that 15-mile stretch of highway. It’s weird to miss a piece of infrastructure, but I do. I miss the anticipation of driving toward that sign and knowing that not only was I about to enjoy a good meal, but I would be encouraged to bury my nose in a book and ignore everyone around me as I ate. It takes a special establishment to understand that sometimes, the best part of visiting a family restaurant isn’t the food but the distractions around you that prevent you from arguing with that family. And that alone is a good enough reason to pull off the interstate and investigate.