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In the Brandywine Valley, Used-Book Utopia

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 1998; Page E02
   


On our annual family pilgrimage from Washington to my father's home town of West Chester, Pa., my parents bartered for good behavior by promising a stop at Baldwin's Book Barn on the way home. True to its name, Baldwin's indeed sold books from an 1822 stone barn in the heart of what then was the rural Brandy-wine Valley, so immortalized by the artistry of N.C. and Andrew Wyeth. But for us children, it was a funhouse -- the barn's five rickety stories with unevenly placed shelves and nooks was great for hide-and-seek. Its floors buckled and swayed. Since it was built on a hillside, doors on the first three floors opened to the outdoors; our suburban-reared clan was mesmerized. The books themselves were less interesting than the barn but they kept our parents occupied.

These days, I'm more interested in pawing through Baldwin's extensive collection of World War II titles and histories of Broadway than I am in racing my brother through the stalls, but the funhouse magic's still here. There are more than 300,000 used and rare books crammed into 9,500 square feet -- pretty dense when you consider that a modern super-store like Barnes & Noble in George-town has 150,000 titles in a comparatively spacious 33,000 square feet. At the Book Barn, there are no fancy displays -- books are housed on rough wood shelves and in old wooden fruit crates. Battered old rockers and Windsor chairs beckon. Pip, the resident Jack Russell terrier, is sprawled by the working wood stove.

William and Lilla Baldwin bought this onetime dairy farm in 1946 and installed their family in an adjacent milking house. Since Tom Baldwin took over when his dad died 10 years ago, the store has clung to its generalist roots. The place is more a haven for readers than collectors. Customers vary wildly -- the 300-pound guy who pulled up in an 18-wheeler and bought two bags of books on Jungian psychology, the Bentley-driving dandy who buys his books by the yard. For the most part, though, the shoppers here are average Joes, who wander around in a state of reverence, voices hushed, murmuring polite excuse-me's when they pass one another. They walk gingerly, which is probably wise owing to the age of the barn, but it's also a respectful gesture, one that harks from the days when bookstores were more genteel refuge than slick super-store.

The store offers reasonable bargains on modern releases. A mint copy of "The Rogers and Gray Ital-ian Country Cookbook," bought from a new bookstore that went out of business, is $23.50 -- not much more than half its cover price (it goes for $28 at amazon.com). And there are tough-to-find titles; recent discoveries included "The Story of the Secret Service," published in 1937, for $6.50, and the 19th-century "History of the Royal Residences," a three-edition set with hand-colored engravings, at $8,500. I bought the former, left the latter.

Some tips to help you navigate:

Dress warmly. The higher you go (and the farther away from the wood stove) the nippier it gets; the third-floor fiction wing in particular is quite frosty, and no wonder -- you can see the leaden winter sky through the slats.

Plan to spend hours. The store is actually well organized, with directories above every stairway. But with more than 40 categories, it can take a while to work your way through. You can, for example, find books on espionage in War, New Arrivals, Espionage and Biography (both domestic and international). Tomes on boating might be in Sports or Maritime, Transporta-tion or Disasters.

Watch out for funky pricing. I recently found four copies of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Listen! The Wind" in different locations. One first edition in Aviation History cost $22.50; another, in American Biography, one floor below, was $12. No discernible difference.

When they tell you the store's closing they mean it. When I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon, the store was scheduled to close at 5, and at 4:45 I'd only just made it to the fifth floor. A manager informed a fellow on the floor below that it was closing time; I figured it was a courtesy warning and sidled over to Radio & Television (tucked between Addiction and Alcoholism). Not five minutes later, I headed to the staircase to leave -- and descended into blackness. I felt my way gingerly, not sure where the next stairway was, unable to see the bookshelves rising out of the gloom. I called out several times. There was a creepy silence. I began to wonder if I'd been locked in for the night.

Eventually I found my way out safely, feeling shaken, and having gained a jarring insight into my long-beloved haven. As they locked the door behind me, the last customer, I looked at my watch. It was 4:55 p.m.

Baldwin's Book Barn (865 Lenape Rd./Rt. 100, Lenape, Pa., 610-696-0816, http://www.bookbarn.com) is a mile outside West Chester -- about a 2-hour drive from Washington. Take I-95 north to Delaware; exit at Route 141 north, which leads to Route 52 north, which crosses into Pennsylvania. At Route 1, go left (south); at the first traffic light (Route 52 again), go right; follow 52 for about six miles. Baldwin's is on the left. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends.

There are numerous B&Bs and motels in the Brandywine Valley. For a distinctive splurge, the Inn at Montchanin Village (1-800-269-2473), a collection of 11 historic buildings, offers rooms ranging from $150 to $325 per night; the adjacent Krazy Kat's restaurant, in an old blacksmith shop, is superb. For more information: Brandywine Valley Tourist Information Center, 1-800-228-9933, http://www.brandywinevalley.com.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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