Now that the Kindle is threatening our intimate connection to our books, I want to recount the relationship I have with my books and my favorite used and rare bookstore: The Owl Pen, in Greenwich, New York.
When I first moved to Shushan in the 1970s, it felt very remote. We barely received two television stations, and most phone numbers consisted only of the last four numbers. Mega bookstores had not reached our region yet, and our village new book store was poorly stocked. The Owl Pen, a used and rare bookstore on a dirt road off a dirt road, was an oasis of books.
Started by Barbara Probst in a converted chicken coop, the Owl Pen grew over the years to house nearly 100,000 volumes. When Barbara retired the bookstore was bought by Edie Brown and Hank Howard. Barbara wasn’t going to turn her store over to just anyone. She wanted to be sure that it was placed in capeable hands; and she couldn’t have found more competent people to take her place. Hank, a former botany professor at Skidmore College, knew his science books, but was also both a skilled bookbinder and a handyman par excellence; a necessity on this sprawling property with numerous out buildings. Edie, a former literature major at Skidmore, had a love for the books as objects, as well as, subjects.
I collected Edith Wharton, so my first stop was to the place on the shelves where the Wharton’s books could be found. Being interested in “reading” copies of Wharton, I didn’t search for first editions or special bindings, just missing titles.
When my shelves at home needed culling, Edie was just as happy to buy back my books. What I liked to do, was buy lots of books in the summer for winter reading, and then the ones I was sure I didn’t want to keep, I would sell back to her in the spring. I will admit, that more than once I have re-bought my own books. I guess I really did like them.
Buying your books from the Owl Pen already makes you feel part of a special inner circle of people willing to drive deep into the county for their books. Knowing the DNA of your books — who owned them before you, which is sometimes possible as the books are sometimes signed or still have an ex libris label in them — is part of the joy of buying used books. Lots of authors from Yaddo and writers from Bennington College shop there. Once, I met an art historian from Middlebury who said, “I am always buying your books at the Owl Pen.”
But my favorite experience was when I brought a newly minted friend and documentary filmmaker from Argentina to the store. After wandering through the stacks he settled on Claude Levi-Strauss’ “Tristes Tropique”, and yes, it was my copy.
If you go: