For Roby Boswell, there can never be too many books. On a billowy, blue day, he has spent about three hours in Second Story Books on Greenmount Avenue. He doesn't browse; but searches the inventory carefully, shelf by shelf, volume by volume for works on the occult, medicine, jazz, psychology.
"If I just came in to browse, I might not find what I want," says Mr. Boswell, a dignified man with a salt and pepper beard, straw hat, shorts and cane. In his hand, he holds a paperback copy of "Nostradamus and his Prophecies."
Mr. Boswell visits the cluster of secondhand book stores in the Waverly neighborhood two or three times a month. He doesn't come because the books are cheaper there than at new book shops. "Price doesn't matter," Mr. Boswell says. What does matter is "that I find what I'm looking for."
In the words of Marge Chambers, manager of Second Story Books, Baltimore is becoming a "mecca" for those seeking secondhand and rare books. Bibliophiles like Mr. Boswell, as well as casual browsers, can discover treasures in a variety of used, out-of-print and antiquarian/rare bookstores around town.Spring is also a season for book fairs such as the one taking place today and tomorrow at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium and today's used book sale sponsored by the Baltimore News Network at Friends School.
The used book business is a "very crazy quilt," says Rebecca Myers, associate publisher of AB Bookman Weekly, the trade journal for the out-of-print book business. "You're talking books for a quarter and books for millions of dollars," she says.
The motives of customers seeking used books are as varied as their prey. "A well used reason is that someone is looking for pieces of their childhood," Ms. Myers says. "These dealers literally can create magic in the sense of finding books they couldn't find for 10 years."
Ken Rosenberg, who with his wife Paulette Bradstreet, owns the Book Miser on West 25th Street, says, "The majority of customers really are looking for information. There's a lot of information they can't get in books around now, or books are too expensive now. Certain reference books that cost $100 new can be found for $35 used," he says.
Mr. Rosenberg is speaking in the bright front room of a converted row house, where incongruous titles such as "Practical Cheese Making," "Annals of Harrisburg," "The Case of the Perjured Parrot" and Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island" share space before they are recycled by lovers of arcane and popular culture.
Gene Russell is one customer making the rounds of the 25th Street "book block" where four used and antiquarian bookstores nestle like so many volumes on a shelf. Mr. Russell came from Pasadena to look for books that have anything to do with the history of the Mormons, of which he is one. So far, he has delicately piled 10 books on the counter of Tiber Bookstore, and manager Elissa Bellassai tallies the tab. He will have to ask her to hold some.
"Any time I find something here in a used book store, I know I've saved a lot of money," Mr. Russell says. He speaks fondly of one book he found at a fair for $50, and didn't buy. He later found it for $8 in an Eastern Shore bookstore and snatched it up.
A strategically placed bookstore can be more than a bookstore. Sec
ond Story Books, where prices start at 50 cents, is a Waverly community hub. Located in the old Boulevard Theater at the intersection of Greenmount and 33rd Street, the store is "a neutral place" that helps to solidify the community surrounding it, Ms. Chambers says.
Second Story can also fill in for what is missing in the community. "We're noticing that since the [Waverly branch of the Pratt] library has cut hours, we do have on Sundays neighborhood children who need reference books," Ms. Chambers says. Teachers, scarce on resources, also come in to buy learning materials at special discount prices, Ms. Chambers says.
With new paperback book prices soaring, places like Second Story may well be the only shops where those with limited funds can buy books. "You're going to have an upper class of people who [will be the only ones] allowed books if we don't exist," Ms. Chambers says. "Can the woman down the street with five kids afford a book for $8.95? No, she's going to come in here and pay $3."
The more selective, out-of-print book world is a small one where dealers "buy a lot from each other," Ms. Myers of AB Bookman says. "Specialist dealers buy from general dealers, and when they travel they always visit one another. Everybody is feeding into this book food chain."
Although certain categories, such as chess and cookbooks, are of timeless interest to book collectors, "there are always new DTC topics that come up and grow and change," Ms. Myers says. "For instance, Stephen King. He's very new on the scene when
you think of books being around for five centuries." The Vietnam War, popular culture and women's studies are also becoming highly collectible categories, she says.
Book dealers are always challenged by the scarcity of good books. Old, collectible books are becoming increasingly rare, and fewer editions of new books are being published. The "percentage of books published with lasting value is well under 10 percent of what's published," says Mr. Rosenberg of the Book Miser. "The trick is trying to get books on the shelves that your customers want. There are vastly more books available than anyone would want to read," he says. The more specific a book's subject, the more valuable it is, he says.
Among book dealers, "there's a lot of competition for the fewer good books out there," says David Ray, owner of Allen's Book Shop on 31st Street in Waverly.
Vying for the same, shrinking pool of books doesn't deter the "book block" dealers and dealers centered in Waverly from sticking together geographically. There is "strength in numbers," they agree. And, "customers have a better chance of finding what they're looking for," says Ms. Bellassai of the Tiber Book Shop.
For T. J. McCauley, the out-of-print book business has been profitable. A mail-order book dealer from Langhorne, Pa., he is also in the business of promoting book fairs, where attendance averages about 3,000. "There are a lot of people who are selling books as a second job," Mr. McCauley says. I started that way and within four years, I was doing better selling books part time than I was full time in teaching," he says by phone.
But business has been sluggish lately for local book dealers. Ms. Chambers attributes slow sales to fear of the city. She cites a radio ad issued by the Fraternal Order of Police in February warning people of crime-ridden Baltimore. "People believe the hype . . . that doesn't help things at all," she says.
The recession, high rents and the quirky nature of the business, which attracts those with large disposable incomes and those with none at all, are also to blame. "Most shops survive in spite of themselves," says Mr. Rosenberg, who has a mail-order business and just opened another used book shop in Fells Point. "Dealers like books; they don't like business."
The Baltimore Book and Paper Show and the Mid-Atlantic Military Book and Paper Show take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. All together, there will be about 90 exhibitors. Admission to both shows is $2.
The "Worth Reading" used book sale, sponsored by the Baltimore News Network, takes place from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. today at Friends School, 5114 N. Charles St. Thousands of used books and records will be for sale. There is no admission charge. For more information, call (410) 433-6160 until 9:30 a.m.