On any given day, they're booked up


The rumor moved with surprising swiftness, as ugly rumors do. Kelmscott Bookshop was for sale, its owners tired of the six-day-a-week grind. Kelmscott Bookshop had closed, along with the other stores on 25th Street's "Book Row," to make way for the new drug store.

But Kelmscott - which anticipated Book Row by several years when it opened in 1977 and now survives it - lives on as a bibliophile's outpost. "Why don't you write about that?" its owners inquired politely. "Isn't there a story in our very survival?"

And so there is.

It is a typical day at Kelmscott, which means that anything can happen and anyone might walk through the door. The one constant is the classical music, WBJC, and the near-constant is Teresa "Terry" Johanson, buzzing visitors in through the front door and writing out receipts in her flowing script.

And then there is the smell. How to describe it? Musty, yes, but lovely, too - a kind of grandmother's-basement smell, a smell created by tens of thousands of volumes, rescued and rehabilitated, and now waiting on the crowded shelves of two combined Baltimore rowhouses for the right person to take them home.

In some cases, Johanson will dip into her voluminous personal files and nudge the relationship along, act the part of matchmaker. So-and-so collects James Joyce; surely he will want this children's book by the Irish writer. Or this one likes Edith Wharton and here, at last, is the "Age of Innocence" she needs to complete her collection.

"It's a game of survival," Johanson says. "You almost have to have a strategy of how to get through the week." Toward that end, Kelmscott also appraises collections (at $75 an hour) and runs its own bindery.

Terry and Don Johanson, originally from New York, met as students at the University of Arizona. They left Arizona for teaching jobs in Blacksburg, Va., careening out of town in a potato chip delivery truck filled with books. Soon, Don decided to open his own small store on the side, the Odd Volume.

"He's the kind of person," Terry says of her husband, "who isn't happy unless he buys a book every day."

"Only one book a day?" Don asks, when told of the characterization.

They soon decided they wanted to leave teaching and run a book store full-time, which would require moving to a larger city. Methodically and carefully, they examined their options. Washington was too expensive. Richmond, Va., and Wilmington, Del., were too sleepy. But Baltimore, then on the cusp of its fabled renaissance - why, Baltimore, as Goldilocks herself might have said, was just right. They bought a house in Guilford for themselves and their three children, and a single rowhouse on 25th Street. (The second would come a few years later.) They needed two trucks to move their collection of 10,000 books north.

Today, it would take a fleet -not that they plan to move again. Terry estimates they have 80,000 volumes; Don thinks that number is a little high. They specialize in literature and Menckenania, Greek and Latin classics. And history, of course, and modern firsts, and Marylandia. Then there's the room where books on Utopia yield to books on Unions, and this somehow leads us to Espionage.

A (gasp) computer

The newest and most jarring addition to Kelmscott is a bright blueberry iMac, visible through the window on 25th Street. Some people come in just to admire the computer. Terry thinks it's ugly, and Don is proud to say he's computer illiterate.

The Internet is neither their enemy nor their salvation. Terry thinks they do about 20 percent to 25 percent of their business via the Web (www.kelmscottbookshop.com). Don thinks it might be a little more. On Monday of this particular week, for example, they had almost a dozen orders.

But that's as a percentage of titles sold. When it comes to revenue, the big sales come from cultivating serious collectors who are willing to pay serious money for their wares. One of the regulars - they have about 500 chronics, including many other booksellers - dropped $2,000 in the store. "But two months of work went into putting together that sale," Don notes.

Alfred Strati, who likes to describe himself as a dump truck driver - he owns a black-top business and lives in Roland Park - began frequenting Book Row about 15 years ago. He found his wife, Elissa, working behind the counter at Tiber, but Kelmscott had the inventory that kept him coming back. (Tiber is still on 25th Street, but now sells its books exclusively through its Internet site.)

"I gravitated toward them," says Strati, who collects first American editions of the work of Anthony Trollope and estimates his library at 3,000 volumes. "They're very personable."

"Oh, it's a wonderful shop," says Jean Gartlan, a retired Catholic Relief Services worker who discovered Kelmscott shortly after moving to Baltimore in 1989. Gartlan keeps an eye out for books by Virginia Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury group. "But Terry is very naughty - she keeps finding things."

She tempts her customers to buy more books? "Yes, she's Terry the Temptress," Gartlan agrees, pouncing on the phrase. "I love to go there, and I never go [that I] don't have a long chat with Terry."

Other customers have become self-described "literary" friends, such as Vince Sullivan, an FBI agent based in New York City. An H.L. Mencken aficionado, Sullivan has patronized Kelmscott for at least 12 years. "There are two book stores I consistently deal with, and one is Kelmscott and one is out in Utah," he says. "If I call Terry, she goes the extra mile, and she's very honest about whether she thinks something is fairly priced."

He called Terry recently, determined to find a 13-volume set of "The Golden Bough." (You probably didn't know "The Golden Bough," a seminal text on ancient cultures, had 13 volumes, did you? That's OK, neither did Sullivan, until he read a Camille Paglia column about it. ) She found it for him in Australia.

The one that got away

In a business where it's possible to realize you have a book that's selling on the Internet for almost $9,000 - the Johansons have, in fact, just discovered such a book in their inventory, a rare Italian text on economics - does one dream of a big score, a Gutenberg Bible at the garage sale kind of discovery? Terry sighs and tells a story, one she's told many times before.

About 15 years ago, Goucher College had a used book sale, and it was mobbed. The sale was so crowded Terry couldn't get to the travel table, so she went under it, and came up with a falling-apart photography book that documented a German expedition to Egypt, circa 1870. She paid $10 for it, but experts she consulted saw nothing valuable in her find. She was advised to place a price of $200 on it. Eventually, a Washington man bought the book.

A week later, he came back to tell Terry that he had sold the book to the Berlin Museum - for $50,000. It seems the original photographs, by Hermann Volck, were extremely valuable. The man returned to tell them of his good luck not to share it with them, but because it was to be documented in a magazine. When the magazine came out, it said he had unearthed the book at a Baltimore junk shop.

Now that stung a little.

But it is the nature of their business that the Johansons can never keep their most valuable finds. They see themselves as custodians and caretakers, the lucky middlemen. "Over the years, we taught ourselves that we could never own these things," Terry says. "It was a pleasure to let them pass through our hands."

Their own collecting is modest. Don likes French literature; Terry has a library of Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth - handsome editions, but not firsts. They might retail for $40 to $50 in her own store. In their North Baltimore condominium, they have just 2,000 volumes. Yes, just.

They are as happy to track down a $10 book as they are to find a $10,000 one for a valued customer. The Gilman boy who makes his way to Kelmscott Bookshop today might be the dot-com entrepreneur of tomorrow. In fact, there's a regular right now from Gilman, who works part-time at Barnes & Noble, and spends his paycheck at Kelmscott.

One last question: Who or what is Kelmscott?

It is the name of William Morris' manor home, Terry explains, but it also was the name of the small press he founded in 1891, in reaction to the low quality of printing and publishing at that time. Cheap bindings, double columns, acidic paper. It was Morris' plan to make his own books from scratch, bind them by hand and hire the best illustrators of the day. He produced more than 50 titles, the most famous of which is the Kelmscott Chaucer, and inspired others to follow his example.

Great, wonderful. And the buzzer sounds, and another customer arrives, and the classical music continues to play. Or, if it's Saturday, the weekly opera broadcast wafts through the store.

And one wanders out on the depleted Book Row, wondering who the heck William Morris was.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad