Reading is fundamental—remember? Just in time for compiling your beach-blanket book list, we celebrate a few of the area’s unsung literary institutions that should stoke your penchant for published prose through the dog days of summer and beyond.
Generations of readers have perused the substantial inventory at Baldwin’s Book Barn, and more than a few return again and again after experiencing its rustic charm, punctuated by the distinct smell of burning wood from its potbelly stove.
“We’re almost like a historical site,” says Fred Dannaway, who’s spent nearly nine years working at the West Chester outpost with fellow stalwart employees. “Museum tour groups will be at the Brandywine River Museum or Longwood Gardens, and then they’ll come through here.”
What many may not know is that Baldwin’s—all of Baldwin’s—has quietly been for sale. Its 71-year-old owner, Tom Baldwin, has other interests—a second home and grandchildren in Florida. Still, there’s no pressure and no sign on the 5 1/2-acre property, whose centerpiece is the five-story, 9,000-square-foot barn with 13 rooms.
“I can sell the property—but not for a Goddard School,” he says. “I want [the antiquarian book business] to continue. It’s my heritage; it’s the community’s heritage. I’m looking for someone who wants this lifestyle. It’s such a wonderful culture for someone who can afford it. I lived it as a boy and as an adult.”
For Baldwin, passing on the business is his responsibility. His father, William, began the business with his wife, Lilla, in 1934. In 1946, they moved into the Lenape Road dairy barn built by Quakers Brinton and Sarah Darlington in 1822. “It was my father’s vision,” says Tom. “I’ve only been the caretaker. I’ve done a good job of it, but I also want it to go on.”
Inside Baldwin’s Book Barn, the shelves go on and on. There are 200,000 books to browse, along with maps, manuscripts, art, letters, photos and antiques. Tongue-in-cheek warning signs above low-lying thresholds read “Duck” and “Grouse.”
“When I was a young man, my father was the only [bookman] of consequence [outside Philadelphia],” Tom says. “He got all the estates of the Main Line and out here.”
At one time, there were 10,000 rare and used book dealers in the country, Baldwin says. Now, there may be as few as 850. “They’re all gone,” he says. “All the chains are in trouble, too. It’s a contracting business.”
Some shop owners simply pass on. Danny Salsburg died last November after sustaining the family-owned Ardmore Paperback Book Shop on Lancaster Avenue for decades. The survivors, who started with millions of dollars in inherited inventory, benefited from the Internet’s initial impact, then made millions more. Nothing about the changing face of the industry detracts from the culture of books or the “gentle madness of bibliomania,” as Baldwin describes it.
Some mornings, you can hardly see out the windows at Baldwin’s because the hand-me-down books are piled so high on the stoop. One donation sold for a premium at Christie’s. Tom called the donor and split the profits with him. His generosity is a noted trait. What books he can’t use, he donates to prisons, church groups and the like.
Mike Weinberg, who is working on his master’s in criminal justice at West Chester University, has become an intern at Baldwin’s. “I was coming in every three or four weeks as a customer, and I don’t know how many times I was still upstairs when Tom was turning the lights off on me,” says the 24-year-old, who was an undergraduate history major and political science minor, and collects original manuscripts, including 18th-century American newspapers. “For a history person, this is the Holy Grail.”
Dannaway has seen a single sale for as much as $8,000. And while the next generation seems to favor Blackberries over books, Tom remains confident that there will always be a market—and confident Baldwin’s will sell to the right buyer.
To learn more, visit bookbarn.com.
For John C. Van Horne, every book is an extraordinarily important artifact—evidence of a prior culture that reveals more than its words can.
Books, of course, are the underpinning of the Wynnewood resident’s stewardship as director of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin’s historic invention in 1731. He’s curator of a collection that “best represents what America has been reading for 275 years.”
This year, the 60-year-old Van Horne is celebrating his 25th anniversary as director. Edwin Wolf, his predecessor, served for 30 years. Wolf reinvented the library as a research destination in the 1950s before overseeing a move in the next decade to 13th and Locust streets, next to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in April.
In the mid-19th century, the Library Company of Philadelphia was the country’s largest public library. By the 1950s, it was non-circulating. Today, there are a half-million volumes, dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. The collection has since become rare. “At the time of their purchase, the library thought they would simply be useful to members,” admits Van Horne.
Franklin was 25 years old when he pooled funds to import books. He formed a company; members were shareholders. Incoming money was used to import more books. Today, the library’s catalog is automated. No worries, though. Van Horne is certain Franklin would’ve invented the Internet, too.
Privately endowed, the Library Company is independent and a nonprofit. It’s open to the public free of charge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. It’s a nagging misconception that it’s not.
“Most people think we’re some elitist, unwelcoming thing,” says Van Horne.
Quite the contrary: Van Horne has promoted open and varied free programming, collaborated with other institutions, created an interactive website, and slowly and steadily increased usage.
With three degrees in history, Van Horne first worked at the Maryland Historical Society editing 10 volumes’ worth of papers from famed American architect and engineer Benjamin Latrobe. In 1985, when he applied for the Library Company director’s job, he was a young but familiar face in Philadelphia. The Latrobe project had moved here.
Then and now, he was in awe of his position. “I always knew I had to leave [the Library Company] in as good a state as I found it,” says Van Horne.
These days, the Library Company has a staff of 22—17 of them full time. There’s also a 20-member board. It’s a destination for 2,000 readers a year, and twice that number participates in lectures, exhibits and tours. Two-thirds of its patrons are academics, mainly graduate students or faculty members. Another third are undergraduate researchers, genealogists, journalists and filmmakers.
Starting in 1987, Van Horne instituted research fellowships that now award $160,000 in annual grants for dissertation or post-doctorate research. Some 35 scholars take advantage of the program each year.
Van Horne’s own scholarly expertise is early American history. Last December, he published an essay about Franklin and education. He’s also involved in the Library Company’s publishing efforts, which generate catalogs, an annual report and books.
Library Company programming centers around the collection’s strengths—like the early economy and society, African-American history, Philadelphia daguerreotypes, visual culture, women’s history, lithography and the United States Centennial. The library continues to work with former mayoral candidate Sam Katz on his HistoryofPhilly.com documentary series, which has already produced episodes on Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, the history of fire companies, and baseball’s legacy in Philadelphia (as narrated by the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins). The Library Company houses his project in its historic Cassatt House offices next door.
In 2006, the Library Company’s 275th anniversary coincided with Franklin’s 300th birthday celebration. For the tercentenary, it published a catalog of Franklin’s personal home library. The 1,300 original Franklin books and pamphlets that the Library Company owns are a mere fraction of what once existed.
For Van Horne, his position remains as much a living artifact as any of the library’s holdings. “This has been a perfect job in every way,” he says. “When you’re so devoted, you don’t want to have the job lead on to something else. You don’t view it as a stepping-stone—it’s a destination.”
To learn more, visit librarycompany.org.
With her last name, perhaps Susan Borders was bound to be involved with books. Today, however, she’s busy coaxing the borough into helping with snow removal. As director of the Darby Free Library, she’d like to open Saturday morning.
Then again, when you’re the nation’s oldest continuously operated public library, there’s a call to service—and usually Borders shovels herself out. “Back then, there was no country and no borough—just a town,” she says. “We may have had the printing press here, but it was only printing propaganda.”
Begun in 1743 by 29 Quaker farmers and merchants, the early cultural institution was called the Darby Library Company, the initial collection housed in the home of the librarian. As the collection grew, it was relocated over to Philip Sipler’s Saddle Shop on Main Street in Darby. The corner property at 10th and Main streets was purchased in 1866, when members and citizens raised $8,895.54 for its construction. Darby Library Hall was built by Charles Bonsall and opened in 1872. The original charter still hangs in an enormous frame above the staircase.
It was through John Bartram, the famed botanist and member of Darby Friends Meeting, and his London friend, Peter Collinson, that the library’s first books were procured and shipped from England—some 45 volumes. A hanging bookcase containing a bulk of the original texts remains.
But until a recent resurgence in spite of the recession, Darby’s days were numbered. The library had provided services tax-free until 1970, when it first asked for a tax increase. By the late 1990s, donations slackened, and the state became more stringent, requiring that a minimum of $5 per population member served be spent to qualify for state funding. Darby was spending $2.70 a person, and the Library Company was filling the gap by tapping its investment funds from endowments, taking $30,000 to finish 2008. “It’s really a gift,” says Borders. “We can never pay it back.”
By January 2009, Darby was in dire straits and set to close without additional support from the borough to help it qualify for state aid. “It wasn’t [crying] wolf—it was real,” says Borders. “The people voted [in a referendum], and we’re still open.”
The library asked for $50,000; the borough approved $42,000. The rest was raised through benefit dinners, T-shirts, even change jars (“They were stolen twice,” Borders says). Coverage in USA Today helped, so did a PayPal account and Facebook. In all, some $10,000 came in—half from outside the borough.
“With all the talk of the city’s closure of libraries, it was a real wake-up call,” says Borders, who manages the library with six others (all part time) and is part-time director at Sharon Hill Public Library, too. “Libraries can close. They’re not guaranteed.”
The save also came in the shadow of massive state cuts. This year, Darby’s state support was slashed 21.1 percent, though it was originally targeted for a 50-percent cut. Besides, the library’s old building always requires maintenance. “And we’re on a fixed income,” Borders says. “There are some grants for building improvements once we identify a project, but there’s no grant for payroll, electric or gas.”
The library was recently awarded a $154,000 federal HUD grant to convert first-floor space (once the librarian’s apartment) into offices it plans to rent to the Darby Borough Community Development Corporation. “It’s a great partnership because we’re both providing services to the community,” says Borders.
Oddly, the economy has helped create a greater need for the library. Patrons are using it as a home base for job searches, résumé writing and career placement. Five computers—all of them purchased on Bill Gates grants—offer Internet access. Waiting lists can run as long as two hours. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the library offers private tutoring space for students of the William Penn School District through federal “No Child Left Behind” funding for at-risk school districts.
Downstairs is the original library room. It’s where Darby’s oldest books are housed. They only circulate to other libraries for in-house reference. “We want people to know what we have and what’s available,” says Borders.
Today, all the numbers are up at Darby. The library sees more than 100 patrons a day. It houses 20,000 volumes of fiction, nonfiction and reference books, plus audio, DVDs and videotapes.
“We’ve watched it grow,” Borders says, with obvious pride. “We’re having a great year.”
To learn more, visit darbylibrary.org.
For 70 years, Bryn Mawr’s George S. MacManus Company has bought and sold rare and important books. A charter member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and a member of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, it boasts an inventory of 45,000 cataloged titles focusing primarily on 18th- and 19th-century Americana. Clarence Wolf, the owner and proprietor for 40 years, has been instrumental in helping individual and institutional collectors alike build and maintain impressive libraries.
MLT: What’s the company’s history?
CW: My father, Ben Wolf, was George MacManus’ partner. They shared the same [Philadelphia] building. Initially, MacManus was selling books on the first floor, and my dad, a combat artist in World War II, was selling artwork at his Warwick Galleries on the second floor. They began swapping goods, then incorporated as partners in 1940. When George died, my dad carried on. I entered the business in the 1960s. In 1998, we moved into this converted and restored block-length Supplee dairy barn.
MLT: How accessible was the book world before the Internet?
CW: In the halcyon pre-Internet days, if you wanted a local history, you would contact a handful of specialists. Every city had one. If one of us didn’t have it, we had our own network—our own Internet. I used to write names on index cards and find requests from sometimes 20 years earlier. I’d make a call once I had the book, and [the client] still hadn’t found it.
MLT: What’s the upside to the Web?
CW: Take this small bibliography of Minnesota printed in an edition of 50 copies in 1870. It’s a fragile piece of ephemera. I looked it up and found two other copies for sale. Years ago, how would you find such an irretrievable? This is the flip side: The legitimately rare are much more saleable. But books thought to be rare, in a practical sense, turn out not to be.
MLT: You still issue catalogs, right?
CW: We just published the third in a series of Civil War-only offerings (including a stash of Confederate volumes from the estate of a Chapel Hill, N.C., bookman) that went to about 3,000 on our mailing list. But the Internet has altered the biorhythms of the book business. It used to be we’d mail out a catalog every two months, then the phone would ring off the hook for two weeks. The Web has made our business more consistent. But it will always be based on critical mass. If you have enough product, you’ll attract attention.
MLT: Book values aren’t a topic you openly discuss. Why not?
CW: People always ask about investment value, but I shy away. No question, many books have appreciated—and many have appreciated appreciatively. But a book has to be one of importance; it has to be rare, and its condition is critical. I’d rather have a great copy of an insignificant book than a bad copy of something good that I have to apologize for.
MLT: How has your business survived and thrived?
CW: We were always specialists. If you’re interested in what we’ve been interested in, then you’ve found Mecca. But with that [computer], we’re a 24-hour business. It doesn’t matter if there’s a blizzard, or if you’re in Germany, England or California.
MLT: What’s the difference between a bookseller and a bookman?
CW: A bookman knows nuances. You can learn more by walking up and down a stack of books with a bookman than by looking for a title online. You might find another book that’s ancillary, or better. Despite the wonders of cyberspace, you can’t beat the actual physical contact between books and people.