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Cooperstown, as quaint and peaceful as ever

Home to Hall of Fame brings fans into the past, and the residents simply love it there @RichardJustice

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Welcome to the land that time forgot, a place perfectly preserved from another America. This is Norman Rockwell's canvas, one that is incomprehensibly beautiful. This is different, though. This isn't a movie set.

"We try to stay with the times without being of the times," said Andrew Oberriter, owner of Cooperstown Wine and Spirits. "Does that make sense?"

Oberriter has lived here almost all of his 39 years, and like virtually all of the town's other 2,000 year-round residents, he prides himself on Cooperstown being the same as it ever was.

No matter how many times visitors have been here, they're almost always struck again by the timelessness. Cooperstown is a village of tree-lined streets and hundred-year-old colonials. It's parks and hiking trails and mountains and the beauty of Lake Otsego.

Main Street is where people shop and stroll and chat. It's the pizza parlor down there, the ice cream place over here. There's a bakery, Schneider's, an absolute treasure. At the hardware store, people browse the aisles and visit with one another and take their sweet old time.

There are pubs and restaurants and bookstores and an assortment of gift shops. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and museum sits at the end of Main Street and is the focal point of the city's tourism industry. The Hall of Fame will attract 300,000 tourists a year, but the complete Cooperstown experience is about coming and soaking in all of it, the restaurants and the inns. It's taking a couple of days to breathe deep.

"We're very proud of what we have," said Kathryn Busse, who owns the Silver Fox Gift Shop with her husband, Richard. They also own a restaurant, a Christmas shop and the ice-cream parlor. They've raised three kids here, and when you ask her what makes Cooperstown special, Kathryn will dab tears from her eyes as she answers.

"This is a place you can leave your doors unlocked," she said. "You just don't have the insecurities you have other places."

I learned that the night before when the night clerk at The Inn at Cooperstown came to check me in. It was after midnight, and she mentioned she'd been reluctant to walk from her home through the dark alley.

Really? Crime?

"Skunks and deer sometimes are in the alley late at night," she said. "That's what we worry about in Cooperstown."

Kathryn Busse's parents moved here in 1948. Both are retired now, still here. No plans to leave.

"We work hard to maintain Cooperstown," she said. "We've been self-employed for 28 years. We're proud of what we have here."

Across the street, Tim and Connie Haney run the Cooperstown Bat Company. They also raised a family here.

"A lot goes into keeping Cooperstown special," Connie said. "It's a place where you know your neighbor, where you help each other."

Still, there's the occasional controversy. For instance, not everyone was thrilled with the addition of parking meters on Main Street. On the other hand, this will be a summer for showing off a brand-new sidewalk.

"It's nice to have that be your biggest controversy," Oberriter said. "You can still walk into the woods and not have to think about anything else."

In high school, Oberriter and his friends would stand in front of the Hall of Fame and play with the tourists who asked them how to get to the Hall of Fame.

"We'd send 'em down the street, have them make a few right turns and bring 'em right back where they started," he said. "When they got back, we'd point to the Hall of Fame."

He laughs retelling the story.

"If that isn't small-town entertainment, I don't know what is," he said. "It's continuity. You know the people next door. Everybody knows each other. It's a small town in the best sense of the word."

Cooperstown's setting and its beauty is striking to visitors. Do the natives understand how spectacular their hometown feels?

"Oh, I think so," Oberriter said. "We appreciate the lakes and hills. Those things don't change."

Just outside town, at the Blue Mingo Grill, summer diners sit on a patio overlooking Lake Otsego and order from the chef's blackboard. Shrimp grits and lobster rolls and crab cakes are among the specialties of the house, but it's the setting that makes the place so instantly appealing.

"If you're driving into Cooperstown for the first time, it's almost as if Cooperstown could be in black and white in a lot of ways," said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, who has lived here 20 years. "It's a throwback."

Sasha Gagarin is a relative newcomer. Eight years ago, upon graduating from Mitchell College in Connecticut, her dad offered to help her get a shop started on Main Street. She named the shop Extra Innings and sells an assortment of baseball stuff, including T-shirts and trading cards.

Like plenty of others before her, she has fallen hard for the village, the beauty and the people. She began her adventure as a baseball fan. She has ended up with much more.

"I don't want to say it's a Norman Rockwell painting, but in a way, it is," Gagarin said. "It looks like it. Everyone is friendly. It's just a great area."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.