MYSTIC — It’s the 1940’s. A nine-year-old boy pedals his bike into downtown Mystic and races past the shops to his true destination: the boatyards. There, watching men assemble massive wooden hulls and towering masts, he hatches a plan – to build a rowboat of his own – but how?
In “A Boy Grows up in Mystic,” author William T.S. Butler captures the true story of his older brother, Dave, who worked to buy a bicycle for a paper route to fund building a rowboat in the family’s basement.
“I deliberately chose the voice of a nine year old when I wrote the book,” said Butler, who grew up in Mystic and remembers details from his childhood – like the milkman from Consumer’s Dairy, ice brought down the hill from an ice house, and mail being delivered twice a day. And the names of shops – Kretzer’s, Mailhot’s Cleaners, Squadrito’s Barber Shop, and Bendetts.
Butler, who uses the first name Sherman, wrote the book in the Mystic Noank library, where, he said, one of the older Mystic postmen read the story, recognized details of bygone Mystic and asked for a copy of the manuscript.
“‘It’s just a memory, that’s all it is,’ I told him. I handed him two copies and, I kid you not, he hands me a $20 bill. He said, ‘This is a great story. You have to have this,’” Butler told CT Examiner.
After that Butler showed the manuscript to “maybe half a dozen others including two people in my own family” and then it lay dormant for a few years. The only illustration, he said, was a watercolor an artist had done of the old William Bendett store in downtown Mystic.
Then, Colleen Lynch, owner of the No Other Book Like This bookstore in Mystic, came across the manuscript. She told CT Examiner that she mocked up the first copies of the book using software and a few royalty free images, staple-bound on glossy pages.
“I was trying to find a way to make that look hand done and look nice enough for a local children’s book,” she said.
Lynch said she was attracted to the book partly because she loves local history as do many of her customers.
“With children’s books, it was interesting because it was written in a sort of tone where you could read it as an adult and as a child, and get something out of it,” she said. “As someone that likes writing and likes books, I liked the story right away and how it was written – not even just because it was about Mystic.”
After seeing a copy of what the book could look like, Butler said he thumbtacked two index cards – one at McQuades, one at the library – with a handwritten ad looking for a children’s book illustrator.
Local artist Ed Tucchio, who’s lived in Mystic since the 1970s – and said his wife spied the ad at McQuade’s – gave Butler a call.
Tucchio told CT Examiner he was a natural fit to illustrate the book because he’d had many similar experiences to the main character growing up.
“I developed an immediate relationship to the subject matter of the book. I mean, he built a boat, I built a boat when I was a kid. He had a paper route on a bicycle. I did the same thing when I was growing up in New London,” he said.
He said he remembered shopping at Bendett’s clothing store and other details of how Mystic looked and felt at that time.
As a fine artist, Tucchio has created paintings of the Mystic area as seen from 40 to 50 years ago. When he wasn’t familiar with a detail in the book, Tucchio said he looked online at the Mystic River Historical Society, referencing old photographs.
With Tucchio on board, Butler moved forward to self-publish the story under Buttermilk Channel Press – the name of Butler’s father’s company in New York City. He said he’s running 1,000 copies to start and the book will be sold in a number of local stores.
Butler told CT Examiner he didn’t consider himself to be a writer – he works as a federal administrative law judge and an arbitrator – but he noticed that the story of a boy building a boat and rowing it up and down the Mystic River continued to gather interest as more people read it, especially longtime Mystic residents.
“Living in Mystic, it’s a marine town. It’s a river town. And when you’re talking about a kid, actually building a rowboat on that river and rowing it up and down the river…the people who live there seem to celebrate a kind of Norman Rockwell style,” he said.
He also remembered the excitement on the day his brother launched his rowboat.
“I recall the community got together to push the boat down to the river to launch it,” he said.”I remember my mother, christening it with a bottle of ginger ale.”