Big Chicken Barn is a bike-friendly shopping way station

The Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques. The first floor is full of rental booths with everything under the sun. The second floor has 150,000 books. (PHOTO BY DAVID M. FITZPATRICK)
The Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques. The first floor is full of rental booths with everything under the sun. The second floor has 150,000 books. (PHOTO BY DAVID M. FITZPATRICK)

I wrote recently about the challenges of shopping on two wheels. It was a humor piece, but anyone who has ever tried to strap lots of stuff—or something oversized—to a motorcycle knew just how non-funny it could be. So as a rule, I don’t deliberately go out to do any heavy shopping on the bike. On a long trip, I make sure the saddlebags, seat bag, and tank bag are as empty as they can be.

There is one regular shopping trip I do make on the bike, knowing very well that I might find something I just can’t get home right then. But once you’ve browsed around The Big Chicken Barn in Ellsworth, Maine, a few times, you’ll see where I’m coming from.

The Big Chicken Barn is aptly named. First of all, it is literally housed in what used to be a chicken barn. And second, chicken barns aren’t usually small. This place is 21,600 square feet big on two stories and everywhere you go is a fun foray through a vast indoor mix of sprawling flea market, hundred-family yard sale, and vast used-book store. This tourist favorite, located on Route 3 just over the Orland/Ellsworth line en route to Mount Desert Island and Down East Maine, is also a regular visit for many locals—with “local” covering a big stretch of geography.

Annegret and Michael Cukierski opened The Big Chicken Barn in 1986 as a part-time venture, but it clearly got away from them and became a full-time, year-round affair. Their son joined the business in 2001 and apparently the third generation of the family is now working there. Having been a regular visitor to the BCB for the past 13 years, I can say that this is a friendly and helpful group of people.

When you enter the BCB by the front counter, you’re on the first floor, where the BCB rents out booth space to people who sell an amazingly wide variety of things, mostly used and usually fascinating. Just walking through the place and seeing the array of wares—sometimes incredible, sometimes strange, always interesting—is worth the trip, even if you don’t buy anything.

What you’ll find is covered by an extremely broad range of categories. That runs the gamut from antiques to Americana to the sort of stuff you’ll find at yard sales. There are toys and musical instruments, paintings and old maps, records and DVDs, furniture and clothing, and just about anything else you might imagine.

As the BCB Web site puts it, “From 19th Century armoires to books on Zen, The Big Chicken Barn caters to the interests of today’s collector of antiques and paper collectibles … With each visit here, there’s bound to be something new and beautiful to strike your fancy—porcelain, pottery, silver, tinware, brass, jewelry, fabric, needlework, glass, china, flatware, and furniture.  You’ll also find models of sailing vessels, clocks, toys, old tools, bottles, prints, paintings, candlesticks, lamps and other lighting devices, and more.”

If you’re a collector of antiques, papers, or Americana, this is the place for you. If you’re not a professional collector, bear in mind that the quality and condition can vary wildly, and at times it’s amusing to see what someone thinks something is worth. An old Coke bottle from the 1960s must be worth twenty bucks, right? Wrong, but that doesn’t stop someone from tagging it as such. It’s not uncommon to see a replica of an old sign that someone clearly thinks is original, and the price tag scares you away. Then there are the antiques that they think must be worth a lot simply because they’re old, but the condition often negates any value.

If it sounds like I’m being negative about the BCB, I’m not. I find these occasional unrealistic prices amusing, and let me be clear that the vast majority of items tend to be great deals. Indeed, most of the first floor is simply a treasure hunt, with wonderful deals on great items. You just have to walk the booths and see what there is to see. As I said, that alone is entertaining.

From time to time, motorcycle gear shows up. There always seems to be one or two folks selling leather motorcycle jackets or boots. I’ve seen saddlebags, chaps, and metal motorcycle signs. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t find SOMETHING there with the Harley-Davidson logo on it, whether it was a jacket, a poster, a toy, or a sign.

The Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques on Route 3 in Ellsworth. (PHOTO BY DAVID M. FITZPATRICK)

The selection is indeed broad, and the key thing is that it’s always changing. Renters come and go, so the booths change from time to time. So does the stock in particular booths. And when a renter is having trouble moving stock, you’re likely to see a sale, such as 20 percent off everything by that seller. If you know what you’re looking at, you can find great deals here. Just know what you’re looking at, and don’t hesitate to whip out your smartphone and hit eBay, Amazon, or wherever to see what similar items tend to sell for.

The second floor is my favorite spot. This sprawling area, the same size as the floor below it, is nothing but books. The BCB owns these, and the titles number about 150,000, according to the BCB Web site. They’re pretty well organized and there are even maps available so you can find your way to the genres and types of books you’re interested in. Hardcovers are generally priced specifically, while paperbacks are half off the original cover price with a $1 minimum. Paperbacks can be touch or go; you might find one with a $10 cover price that you’d pay $5 for, when you know you could find the same title at any used-book store for a buck. But the BCB has piles of older titles with lower cover costs, so you can easily unearth great finds here.

My favorite part of this is that I’d have to buy a lot of books to overload that motorcycle. As a rule, I tend to find lots of small things, whether books of knickknacks, during a visit, so they tuck easily into my bags. I’ve definitely found a few larger items before, but so far not so big that I couldn’t get them on the bike—or come back the next day with my Jeep.

The best part is that this is a great location. I live in Brewer, so I can do a nice ride here and back by taking any number of roads involving Route 15, Route 3, Route 1A, and perhaps Route 46—all of them in great shape. During tourist season, however, realize that the BCB is on Route 3, one of the two major roads to Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor. Traffic tends to either take Interstate 95 to Bangor and then takes Route 1A, or it comes up Coastal Route 1 and then takes Route 3. Either way, those roads converge in Ellsworth, which tends to be a summertime bottleneck from there to the island. That being said, I find Route 3 a lot less frustrating even when the traffic is heavy, especially that far out of town.

The Big Chicken Barn is a great way station for touring bikers. Even if you don’t buy anything, you’ll likely be amused or intrigued by perusing what’s there. And if you do buy something, chances are you can fit it on your bike.

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