Old Book Shop, located at 4 John St. off Ridgedale Avenue, has not given up on the concept of the book as an item worth owning.
In fact, touting a collection of around 30,000 items including rare examples, magazines and other print ephemera, the shop makes a strong case for the more enduring qualities of the form. Established in 1938, the shop has been in several locations through the years, including a storefront on Spring Street from the late 1940s to 1987, whereafter it relocated to its current home.
The store might be difficult to spot by passers-by as it is ensconced in an unassuming wing of a brick building, also home to an auto repair shop. The only outward indication is the matter-of-fact sign hanging on the side.
Once inside, there can be no mistaking Old Book Shop for anything but, well, an old book shop.
Little room is wasted as shelves display items from the floor to nearly the ceiling. Paperbacks command a corner while hardcovers take prominence throughout the rest of the store. A horizontal rack holds pamphlets of sheet music, individually bagged in archival Mylar sleeves. Toward the back of the shop, old and rare magazines and newspapers are found. In a protective cabinet, a tidy collection of the rarer items is housed.
Co-owners Virginia Faulkner and Chris Wolf, who bought the store 1974, liken the shop to a way station for books passing from one owner to the next. They showcase an example of such lineage, an item called "Rhetoric: 1569 and 1562," priced at $500. It is two separate books bound in a single volume, written in Latin and bound in a vellum (calfskin) cover.
"These books are pretty sturdy," Faulkner said. "They're made on much tougher paper than they're made on today. They're going to last longer than a lot of books made in the 20th century."
"They didn't have the paper technology to use wood pulp paper," Wolf said. "Wood pulp paper came in around the time of the American Civil War along with steam power and steam presses. That's when the (structural) quality of books started to go downhill."
Wolf cited the paper found in older volumes as a major part of longevity.
"The government prints dollar bills on cotton rag paper, which is why dollar bills are supposed to last," Wolf said. Cotton rag paper is a common component of books prior to the wood pulp revolution.
While Faulkner and Wolf welcome opportunities to purchase items from sellers, they insist on appointments, to make sure buyers are available to appraise potential additions.
"We buy books all the time, but we're always selective about what we take up. It depends on the subject area and particular authors," Faulkner said.
Best-selling current authors and titles aren't excluded, but will not be added to the shelves to any point of saturation.
"We do carry those books but we don't necessarily buy duplicate copies of them. They're already very plentiful," she said.
On the other hand, there are items the co-owners would find hard to resist.
"There are authors like [Jack] Kerouak or [Kurt] Vonnegut that we can't get enough of," Faulkner said. "If someone happened to walk in with six copies of the same title, we'd be happy to buy them all."
There is little differentiation between a copy of a sought-after book printed two years after the initial release and one released 10 years after. Both would be of interest to the co-owners, and to potential customers, and would likely fetch the same price, she said.
Faulkner does stipulate there are exceptions.
"The first edition of [Kerouak's] 'On The Road' is quite an expensive book," she said. "It was published in a black dust-jacket and black jackets, when they're not shiny [with a matte finish print, unlike the gloss-print jackets for modern books] rub and tend to show wear marks faster than any other color. To first-edition collectors, having something as pristine looking as possible is important. A black jacket just shows every little mark."
"How much it is is very much a matter of condition," Wolf said. "Collectors who are seriously interested in a particular author or subject are truly looking for the best possible condition they can get. With books older than the modern authors, you might have to make compromises."
Another determinant of value is rarity, often found with authors who were not recognized in their time. Their work would be thrown away and disregarded, leaving fewer examples intact in the marketplace.
"Book collectors did not really collect first-edition science fiction or mystery until getting into the 1950s or '60s," Faulkner said. "The first Tarzan book [written by Edgar Rice Burroughs] is now very expensive in a dust-jacket, and that came out about 1910 or 1912. In 1950, you could have bought a nice copy of Tarzan for 10 or 20 dollars."
Wolf offered this advice to the book collector looking to maximize the life of their possessions: "Most important with keeping things is not so much a matter of using archival products, but is a matter of just being conscious of the fact that you should keep it in a safe place which is not too hot, not too cold, not too wet or too dry, and that's 90 percent of the battle."
Faulkner added one more detail: "We always tell people to never lend anything you'd really miss if it didn't come back. We've dealt with too many customers who are trying to replace the treasured object they'd lent to somebody."
"Usually those customers come in saying that they had this wonderful book when they were a child … and it is a tragedy," Wolf said. "Sometimes we can help. Sometimes we can't."