Deep in Pennsylvania's enchanting Brandywine Valley sits a treasure for passionate book lovers - Baldwin's Book Barn. Founded 50 years ago, Baldwin's resides in a rustic, stone dairy barn stuffed to the rafters with a trove of 300,000 used, fine and rare books. They are piled in stacks, in glass cases, in orange crates, on tables and in bookcases lining the stairwells that snake through the five-story labyrinth of rooms in the 1822 structure.
Volumes of stories fill not only the bookshelves, but also the shop's past. There was the time Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Claude Raines and Malcolm Forbes dropped in to explore. Or the summer the "Good Morning America" crew paid a visit and later presented co-host Charlie Gibson with a classic Dickens set from the Book Barn. On occasion painter Andrew Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, stop by to browse; his books and prints (many signed) are popular buys.
A typical weekend brings 200 to 300 customers from the region as well as visitors on holiday; the parking lot overflows. The Book Barn's contents cover about 200 topics, the most popular subjects being religion, American history, cooking, gardening and children's books.
"Book lovers have been coming here for half a century," says Paul Rodenbaugh, a Chester County historian. "With the rolling countryside and the charming atmosphere of the barn, many people believe the Book Barn is one of the best general bookstores in the country. History comes alive here."
The shop has owned books dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1985, acting as an agent for a foreign private collector, it made its largest transaction - $3 million for a first edition of the "Audubon Birds of North America." The hub of rare books is on the barn's second floor. Here, the exquisite leather bindings and rare titles are tended by the founders' son, Tom Baldwin, who travels to book auctions throughout the United States and Europe in search of uncommon finds.
Getting to Baldwin's Book Barn is part of the fun. Located about 35 minutes west of Philadelphia, the shop is near the tiny village of Chadds Ford, home to legendary artists the Wyeths - Andrew, his father, N.C., and his son, Jamie. Navigating tree-lined state Route 100 that hugs the Brandywine River, you glide by rolling meadows dotted with fieldstone barns until a dogleg right steers you onto state Route 52, where, after a couple of miles, at a curve of the winding road, you'll find the Book Barn.
Adirondack chairs perched on 5 acres of rolling, emerald-green lawn flank picnic tables set under a spreading cherry tree. The barn and attached frame milking house, an example of classic Colonial workmanship, feature stone walls 42 inches thick and 16-inch-square oak beams held together by wooden pegs to support the enormous lofts once redolent of hay.
The hand-hewn oak beams, softly worn floorboards, an inviting wood stove and the soothing sound of an old regulator ticking clock provide a comfortable backdrop to the book hunt.
The front room (where horses once were stabled) has the look of an Old West general store. Along with the antique potbellied stove, a partner's desk and a counter that looks as though it was shipped in from an 1880s Colorado mining town, Pip - the latest generation of Baldwin's Jack Russell terriers - can be found.
It began in 1934 with William Baldwin's small collection of history books and his wife Lilla's batch of postage stamps. With these modest resources they opened Chester County, Pa.'s, first used-book store in a well-known Realtor's basement. To increase their stock, the Baldwins would spend a few days each week foraging the county for books, maps, magazines, stamps, letters or any other printed material.
When William came home from World War II in 1946, he and Lilla pursued their dream with vigor and a fair amount of imagination. To raise capital for an old dairy barn they had spotted in the rolling countryside, they held an auction in Wilmington, Del., of more than 10,000 books they had collected.
"The bankers thought my father was mad," says their 59-year-old son. "Here he was proposing to sell books in a barn out in the middle of nowhere. They almost wouldn't give him a mortgage."
But they did.
Baldwin's Book Barn was opened to the public in August 1948, and over the last half century has steadily carved out a reputation among book lovers.
"My mother tended the shop and was responsible for buying the books, prints and paintings," says Baldwin. "She was very proud of it. To her, it wasn't just a business. She believed our books were a service to the community."
At a broad table in the front room, store manager Lisa Danes is busy sorting, classifying and appraising a carload of books that were dropped off early that morning. She is among the Book Barn's 10 employees; positions there are so sought-after that the Baldwins maintain a waiting list of other bibliophiles wanting to work. On this day, she patiently answers newcomers' questions and informs a patron on the finer points of book collecting and setting up a personal library.
"We're very much a destination point," she says, "not only for [book lovers], but also curiosity seekers. The books change every week, as do the customers. We see everyone from the browser to the academic researcher to collectors looking for exquisite leather-bound books.
"Every August we have a group of about 20 Eastern European exchange students visit. The kids are fascinated. They stay several hours, have a picnic lunch outside, and each leaves with an armful of books."
The Book Barn's history and ambience breed loyal customers, who return time and again to browse, to settle into one of the cozy wooden rockers and read for a while before buying anything.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Where: Baldwin's Book Barn is in the Brandywine Valley between Chadds Ford and West Chester, Pa., about a two-hour drive from Baltimore.
Getting there: Take Interstate 95 north to Delaware and the exit for U.S. Route 202. Take this north to U.S. Route 1 and head west toward Chadds Ford. From there, go north on Pennsylvania Route 100 to Pennsylvania Route 52. Continue north on state Route 52 to Baldwin's Book Barn.
Contact: Call 610-696-0816; online, www.bookbarn.com.
About the area: Call the Brandywine Valley Tourist Center, 800-228-9933; online, www.brandywinevalley.com.
Pub Date: 11/08/98