“Welcome to Langley” said the sign hitched to a wooden post. There was another smaller sign above it. “Reduced Speed. 25”
That sign, especially the part about the speed, made sense on the way back home because, situated on the northwest shoreline of Whidbey Island, Langley is a small off-the-grid village with a pace of its own. Less that 75 minutes drive and a ride on the ferry from Redmond, Langley is Pacific Northwest’s wonderfully kept secret.
The tiny village, all of three streets and a marina, sits on a bluff above the Puget Sound across a strait from the Camano Islands. On a clear sunny day, you can see Mt. Pilchuk and Mt. St. Helens amidst several other craggy blue peaks that dot the horizon on the southwest. Ferries loaded with cars and yachts pulling jet-skis leave a white wake on the turquoise water and there are several benches handy nearby to sit and stare. Langley is a sit-and-stare kind of a town.
Despite its proximity to Seattle, Langley is largely non-commercialized: The ATMs belong to the Whidbey Island Bank, the local grocer teeming with fresh produce is called Star Store, the gas station signage has a large V with a yellow ribbon weaving through it and the phone booths are marked Whidbey Telecom. When we wanted to pay for our 4 toping thin crust Nepolitan and a pint of Pale Ale at the Village Pizzeria, we actually had to shell out cash! “No plastic here,” the attractive waitress smiled.
The two business streets are lined with attractively decorated very niche very boutique shops. So niche that I wondered how could they sell anything? “The shop is a disguise. It is front for my wife and I to travel,” said the twinkly-eyed proprietor of Music for The Eyes that specializes in Berber rugs amongst other African paraphernalia. He had spent half his life in diplomatic offices in Africa and Central Asia (“I was in New Delhi for five years,” he made it a point to tell Rhea, “I can even speak a little Hindi”) and decided to settle down in the serenity of Langley. At the Langley Clock & Gallery, we found Herb surrounded by hundreds of clocks. He buys old non-working clocks on eBay and after a customer has paid for it, he fixes it. What a wonderful business model, I thought! When I asked him to pinpoint the year of manufacture of a beautiful antique wall clock, he painstakingly unscrewed the movement and showed me the brand. Then he pulled a book from the shelf until he found a matching insignia. 1850, the text underneath declared. “That’s as close as I can come to it. I am primarily an engineer. I love to get a clock working. The rest I leave it to the customer,” he grinned. “I live upstairs. I come down to the shop to work for a few hours because I love it, not because it makes me a lot of money.” I looked at the clock wistfully, had I not crashed my camera yesterday, the clock was a deal.
Langley is called the Book Town by the Sea for a good reason. Langley has several book shops that sell rare books. My favorite was the delectably maintained “Lowry-James Rare Prints and Books.” The shelves were lined with beautifully bound first editions, several of them signed. But the shop is not just another old books shop. It specializes in “ fine & rare books and prints from the Age of Discovery, encompassing natural history, travel and cartography circa 1500 to 1800”. Lowry lovingly pulled out a map of India, inked in the sixteenth century by a Dutch cartographer (whose name I forgot to jot down) and patiently pointed out the finer details of the masterpiece. She could speak fluently about every item item in her shop and going by her collection, it is no mean feat. We stopped at the Moonrakers where the pleasant lady was impressed with my daughter Rhea’s ability to speak two languages. I refrained from telling her how most people in South India routinely speak four to five languages. She lamented the turn the economy has taken and how many businesses in Langley had gone bust. We bought a ton of books from her and did our own bit to help the economy.
Rhea and I spent much of our time doing nothing: a early breakfast at a book trading shop called Commons, eating gelato at a scenic overlook and walking the streets. I have never been more delighted with a weekend spent so near my home.
Early in the morning, Rhea was ravished. While searching for a place to eat, I saw a road that lead to the Marina. I turned in pretending I was looking for an eatery. We walked under the docks where the yachts and sailboats were moored. The wooden storm walls had barnacle covered columns that went went under water further than eyes could see. Pink, violet and blue starfish and anemone clung to them.
I pointed a school of black fish to Rhea, and wanting to distract her from her growling stomach, asked, “Rhea, if you had those fish, what would you name them?”
She pulled me to the car and said, “Food”