The Great Secondhand Bookstore can be a shy creature. The Owl Pen, for example, lurks on a wooded hill about seven miles from the town of Greenwich, N.Y., its wares filling the outbuildings of a former farm. Like a hiding place for treasure in a fairy tale, the store makes itself hard to find.
Not only do you wind through rolling hills and finally end up on an unpaved road, but there are only two signs pointing the way. Tiny signs that your car flashes past in an instant. On my third or fourth visit, I finally stopped and measured one. White lettering and an arrow on a brick-red background, it measured 12 inches by 20 and stood just under four feet high. (Moral: Call or e-mail the Owl Pen for directions.)
What kind of used bookstore is the Owl Pen? This kind: I walked in once looking for three specific books — one on gardening by Eleanor Perenyi, one on architecture by Witold Rybczynski and a paperback of P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Code of the Woosters,” preferably one with a cover by Ionicus.
“Hm,” said co-owner Edie Brown thoughtfully, and vanished among the shelves. Five minutes later, she was back with all three.
The Owl Pen’s whimsical name is a result of, well, whimsy. The founder, Barbara Probst, started off in the mid-1940s as a working chicken farmer. Then she added lambs. Then some pigs. Then some books. The books multiplied faster than the animals. The bookstore opened in 1960 and soon replaced the farm. Probst had cleaned out the old hog-holding building, putting in a stone corner fireplace, and this was where she first put her store. Hog Pen Books, however, didn’t strike her as a salubrious name. The problem was solved when she found a little cast-iron owl on a bracket at a flea market and attached it above the door. Thus, the Owl Pen.
In 1980, Edie and her then-husband, Hank Howard (amicably divorced, they remain business partners), took over the store. Edie reckons that it now comprises some 80,000 books. Most are in the former chicken-shed — a long building with a seasoned raw plank roof and concrete floors softened with strips of carpet. Many of the books sit in elegant old Globe Wernicke glass-fronted shelves. A potbellied stove stands near the door.
“General antiquarian” is how Edie describes the store. There are very strong fiction and children’s books sections, but overall an air of inspired hodgepodgery rules. You feel you might find anything. Such as “Dr. A.C. Daniels’ Warranted Veterinary Medicines and How to Use Them,” self-published in 1892 with a charming portrait of the mustached author on the cover. That was in a box labeled The Loony Bin, which also boasted “John Halifax, Gentleman” and a novel intriguingly titled “The Wine Was Cold.”
“It could be that the general public is not reading as much,” Edie admits when asked about the state of the bookselling business. But she doesn’t regard the Internet as the enemy. “I like it,” she says. “I can buy off-the-wall things” that she knows will sell online, where Owl Pen offers about 12,000 books. She estimates online sales at about 65 percent of her total. “The walk-in trade is down,” she says. “The Internet has saved me.”
In their early collecting days, Edie and Hank learned a lot from John DeMarco, who founded the Lyrical Ballad bookstore in Saratoga Springs in 1971. Lyrical Ballad is another appropriately magical place: It’s in the basement of a 19th-century Saratoga Bank building, where you wind through a warren of narrow corridors among seven rooms. The most valuable and fragile volumes are housed behind bars in the old vault.
DeMarco — whose store specializes in art, architecture, dance and music — thinks that the Internet “has changed the business, definitely.” People travel less just to buy books. A former customer who collected early editions of the humorist Robert Benchley found them all online and stopped coming in. DeMarco hasn’t put Lyrical Ballad online. He knows that something is missing from Web site book-buying: “the mystery of visiting a used-book store.”
Apart from the store’s specialties, Lyrical Ballad has a large collection (this is Saratoga Springs) of racing books and prints. It carries the beautifully designed reprints of classic late 19th- and early 20th-century ghost stories published by Canada’s Ash-Tree Press. Along with children’s books illustrated by Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, there are signed first editions, early travel books, 19th-century architectural books, finely engraved atlases. There are also lowbrow pleasures — a paperback science-fiction section and oddball things, like a paperback Western whose cover features a bound cowboy and reads, “He Was Bait for the Sheriff’s Posse.”
DeMarco doesn’t see the book disappearing. “The book as form and content, with a fine binding — a beautiful object — can’t be downloaded,” he says.
At Hermit Hill Books in Poultney, Vt., owner Patricia McWilliams is able to say, “I feel lucky that the Internet hasn’t had that much of an impact.” She has about 2,500 volumes for sale online, but 85 percent of her business is walk-in.
The store is certainly a place you want to walk into — light-filled, with a spacious feeling. A glass case contains an Oz book and John Lennon’s “A Spaniard in the Works.” Framed vintage movie posters (Luise Rainer in “The Toy Wife”) hang on the walls. Two fawn and white cats laze about and, on certain days, a pair of Pembroke Welsh corgis make an appearance.
McWilliams is a former editor of the now-defunct Country Journal magazine and once worked in the business department of the New Yorker. She’s an alumnus of the excellent Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. (where a clerk first told me about Owl Pen). She sees Hermit Hill as “an all-purpose bookstore for the area,” which translates into a lot of literature and history as well as poetry, science and music.
Her customers “buy anything from romance to pretty esoteric philosophy,” and she does lots of special orders “for people who don’t like to deal with the Internet.” Among her favorite books are a first edition of “The Hobbit,” a signed edition of Langston Hughes, a first edition of Kafka’s “Amerika” and the yellow-plaid first commercial printing of “The Joy of Cooking.”
Among the handcrafted pine shelves I found nooks for books on medicine, weather, English and astronomy, as well as a section labeled “Culinary Literature.” I spotted one of Dorothy L. Sayers’s books on theology and a history of New England gravestones. One area is devoted to men’s literature. Not what you’re thinking. More along the lines of Henry Ward Beecher’s 1898 “Addresses to Young Men.”
A light-filled place of books, cats and corgis. An underground maze containing antiquarian treasures. A hidden farm full of wonderful books, a reward for those who take the trouble to find it.
John DeMarco is right: The book as beautiful object can’t be downloaded. Neither can the experience of a great bookstore.
Rose is a former theater critic for The Washington Post.