For two years, I’ve lived in a quaint New England college town whose chief claim to fame is its U.S. News and World Report rating as home to one of the best universities in America and birthplace of Chester Greenwood, inventor of the ear muff. There is a parade in Chester’s honor every year down the thriving, brick-fronted main street. At first glance as you drive through town, you think you’ve stepped back a century. Looking more closely, you see the university has taken over a lot of the big Victorian houses as office and academic buildings, and there’s a hippie store amongst the funky others that has cornered the patchouli oil and incense market in western Maine.

I am ashamed to say I do more of my shopping at Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town (all those cheap books, you know, plus they have a Dunkin Donuts in the store). But since I’m on vacation, yesterday I decided to visit Twice Sold Tales, an enormous UBS with considerable organization despite its laid-back vibe.

I really scored. For $15 I bought a 1,536-page, eight-pound book, The Connoisseur’s Complete Period Guides to the Houses, Decorations, Furnishing and Chattels of the Classic Periods, published in 1968. It spans from Tudor times to early Victorian, and is loaded with articles, photographs and illustrations. Like a lot of people, I do research online, but I’m really a hands-on kind of person, so this book is fabulous for me…although it makes me sneeze and itch a little.

What I’m loving most is the faces in the portraits. There’s Wellington, there’s Castlereagh, there’s an unknown lady with Shirley Temple curls. Or maybe Shirley had hers. There’s a lot of stuff pictured courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, my favorite place on earth, and one painting loaned out by “the Earl Spencer,” Diana’s grandfather. I could spend the rest of the summer discovering exactly what crizzling and cartouches are.

Have you ever found something you just had to have, even if you didn’t have a practical use for it? What’s your favorite research tool/site? Anything interesting about your town?

Petworth: The Drawing Room by J.M.W. Turner, c. 1828