The “It” Factor: How One Couple Took a Serious Shining to Stephen King

Meet Stu and Penney Tinker, who helped put King’s hometown of Bangor, Maine on the map as a destination for horror fans from around the world.

Alexander Huls
Oct 31, 2019 · 8 min read

Photos by Mark McCall
Illustration by Jon Stich

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Fans gather at Stephen King’s iconic Bangor, Maine home.

Before Stephen King became the bestselling author of more than 80 books, he was a high school teacher in Bangor, Maine. His hometown paper, The Bangor Daily News, announced the 1974 publication date of his first novel, Carrie, and mentioned a book signing on Main Street at Betts Bookstore, a downtown mainstay since 1938. After reading the article, 21-year-old newlyweds and devoted readers Stu and Penney Tinker decided to go. They were curious to see what local talent their town of 30,000 harbored.

There weren’t many people at the reading, but there was King, seeming a little nervous, with copies of Carrie for customers to purchase. Destiny, however, was almost deferred that day by a matter of price. “Truthfully, I didn’t want to buy the book,” said Stu. “It was six dollars, and I was thinking, ‘I could just buy a 50-cent paperback.’”

But he heeded his wife’s wisdom. “Penney insisted we buy it, which was good,” Stu laughs.

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Stu and Penney shared the $6 hardcover of Carrie, and they were “bitten,” as Stu calls it when someone gets hooked on Stephen King. He will later say he never considered the possibility that the moment was fate, but fate can be like that: a subtle magnetic force that unites people and experiences until they’re bound to move forward together, in ways that are unnoticed and inevitable. On the day of that book signing in 1974, Stu and Penney Tinker, 21-year-old bank employees, became bound to King — and that’s where this story gets interesting.

The Tinkers would return to Betts Bookstore to buy Salem’s Lot in 1975, The Shining in 1977, The Stand in 1978, and on and on, joining the earliest wave of King’s popularity, as the novelist-teacher went from local no-name to a world-famous bestselling author.

In 1989, Stu Tinker underwent a transformation of his own. For years, he had worked in automotive parts departments, and was growing tired of working for other people. That’s when he and Penney passed Betts Bookstore, where they had met Stephen King 15 years, 20 novels, and a dozen film or TV adaptations ago, for the launch of Carrie. A “For Sale” sign was in the window. The asking price was nearly $300,000, and Stu left thinking no one would ever buy the store at that amount.

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Gerald Winters and Son Rare Books, a newer Bangor bookstore specializing in Stephen King. The original site of Stu and Penney’s store is a short walk down Main Street.

Several weeks later, the Tinkers were going for Saturday breakfast and saw a new sign in Betts’ window that read: “Last weekend.” Drawn inside again, the couple were recognized by the owner, who unexpectedly said, “Make me an offer.” Even more unexpectedly, Stu did. He considered his offer too low for anyone to ever accept, but the owner did. “What have we done?” he recalls asking Penney as they left. Stu didn’t know anything about running a bookstore.

Within weeks Stu had quit his job, while Penney kept hers at the local housing authority to maintain a financial safety net. It didn’t take long for the devoted fans to become King’s local promoter. Stu took a gamble and stocked every King book in both hardcover and paperback, unsure if they would sell, but not caring much if they didn’t. The way he saw it, it was the least they could do for King, considering how he had put the town on the map, and given them hours of great reading.

They needn’t have worried about book sales. Bangor was becoming a tourist destination for King fans, a pilgrimage for those eager to see the place that was being continually translated into the fictional town of Derry, Maine, in novels like It. Betts Bookstore was becoming a stop on that pilgrimage, thanks to its King inventory as well as the author’s growing presence there. Ever since a book signing six months after the Tinkers’ version of Betts opened, King had become a mainstay at the store, stopping by every few weeks to buy books. The couple would use the opportunity to ask him questions about his work. Which grate in Bangor inspired Pennywise’s snatching of Georgie? Where the heck did the idea for The Mist come from? Did local kitchen equipment store R.M. Flagg inspire the name of The Stand’s villain?

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The easy-going author gladly answered, and bit by bit the Tinkers amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of Stephen King and his work. It was knowledge they passed along to those who visited their store, providing a map of notable spots in town that visitors could drive to, and even occasionally giving tours to the odd friend.

The store carried on happily that way for years, serving as a safe home for King and his fans alike. The Tinkers even survived the threat of a Borders bookstore opening in town. They simply moved Betts to a smaller location in 1999, outside of downtown but right off the highway, and became exclusively a Stephen King store for the next nine years. (When they told King they were going to become an exclusive King bookstore, Stu recalls him saying, “You don’t really want to put all your eggs in one basket.”)

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Stu and Penney each pose with a version of Stephen King.

The year 2009 was hard. The Tinkers had successfully run the bookstore for two decades, but 20 years of working seven days a week was still a lot. Stu was growing tired, and then his father and Sammy, their beloved West Highland white terrier, became terminally ill. For years he had turned down offers to sell the store to a prospective buyer, but this time when an offer came, he relented.

Stu had hoped to maintain a connection to the store and King by becoming an occasional employee under the new owner, so he was unprepared to find out the store would move online and be based in Connecticut. “We were a little disappointed in that,” he said. “But, you know, once it’s gone, it’s gone, and there wasn’t anything we could do.”

Stu welcomed the time to unwind but was at a loss for what to do. Here he was with years’ worth of bookselling and Stephen King, but what could he do with that? Would all that knowledge become useless?

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Penney had an idea. What if Stu applied his Stephen King knowhow to running tours? Just like in 1974, when she wanted to buy a $6 hardcover, he listened. The Tinkers began outlining what a Stephen King tour might look like. They made a few trial runs, drawing on their old map and accumulated knowledge, deciding which areas would be covered and which would be talked about. They finessed along the way, like a writer editing drafts, trying different routes and refining their expertise into a unique experience, until they were ready to go.

The three-hour van tour would feature more than 30 stops covering Stephen King’s life, novel inspirations, and filming locations. It would stop at the trailer park where King threw the manuscript of Carrie in the garbage before his wife, Tabitha, saved it. It included a visit to the park bench where King handwrote much of It. It stopped at Mount Hope Cemetery, where Pet Sematary was shot, and where tombstones have served as inspiration for many character names. The tour even included a stop at Pennywise’s grate, with his hand reaching out menacingly to provide a beloved photo op.

The couple decided to run an ad in the paper, see what interest they got, and go from there. When Stu told King about it, the author expressed doubt: Would anybody come to Bangor for this?

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Stu and Penney’s son Jamie hosts an SK Tour, including stops at the Pennywise sewer grate and Mount Hope Cemetery, inspiration for Pet Sematary.

Once again, the Tinkers needn’t have worried. SK Tours, as they called it, was quickly swamped with interest. “We were turning down more people than we ever thought possible,” Stu said. Within three months, they had to buy a bigger van to accommodate more people. It’s only grown since. Stu has given tours to people from Siberia and China, accumulated more than a thousand five-star reviews, and converted dragged-along skeptics to the joys of Stephen King. He was even hired by Warner Brothers to give press tours prior to the release of 2017’s The Dark Tower. The couple now runs two tours a day, and in the summer will sometimes have two vans on the road for each time slot due to demand.

While the opportunity for growth is obvious, especially as King has been enjoying one of his cyclical high periods, Stu has reservations. This life they’ve led has been born of the connection between people — he and Penney; Stephen King and the two of them; the Tinkers and their customers. Stu worries that expansion would mean the loss of that personal touch, the tour’s ability to connect King fans through their shared enthusiasm as they drive around Bangor for three hours. The bigger they become, the greater the risk of losing that intimacy.

It’s that connection to King and his work that’s led to the Tinkers having achieved something unexpected beyond the tour’s success. They’ve become recognizable as minor celebrities in their own right, like patron saints of King. “I have people wave all the time,” Stu said. “I have no idea who they are, but they seem to know us.” He’s a little confused, even embarrassed by it, not unlike King himself, who has long been wary of being called a celebrity.

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A stack of King’s books at Gerald Winter and Son.

Regardless, Stu is just grateful at how everything has turned out. “It could’ve gone the other way. We could have failed miserably and lost our shirt, and I’d be back working for somebody else.” Asked if he could imagine what life would be like if he had never read that article in 1974 and gone to the signing of an unknown writer, he thinks for a moment: “I don’t know where we’d be at this point.” Fate can be like that.

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About the author: Alexander Huls is a writer based in Toronto. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, Popular Mechanics, and Pacific Standard, among other notable publications. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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Alexander Huls

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Freelance journalist & essayist. New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire, The A.V. Club and more.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

Alexander Huls

Written by

Freelance journalist & essayist. New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire, The A.V. Club and more.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

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