Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Dealers & Artists Writing Samples
By the Book: Local Dealers Offer Rare Finds in the Book Trade Cape Cod & Islands Home, Holiday 2008 For antiquarian booksellers it is the best of times and the worst of times. While the book trade flourishes, it is becoming invisible.  Never before have there been so many dealers, but a large number are operating out of the back bedroom. Bookstores linger on, but online sales seem to represent the future. There are the added anxieties of an aging clientele and deflating prices. Three Cape Cod booksellers talk about getting started and succeeding in today’s book market. Isaiah Thomas Books and Prints, Cotuit Forty years ago, before he’d decided on a career, Jim Visbeck took a job at the Worcester Public Library. So accustomed were the librarians to his visits that they put him on the payroll. Ditto the bookstore job.  The second-hand shop was another Worcester haunt for introverted, scholarly types.  No one had a better grasp of the stock than Visbeck, thanks to his daily forages of the shelves.  It was only a matter of time before he was hired. There’s a hanging-out dimension to the rare book trade. Hanging out—together with literary knowledge, business smarts, and sheer stamina—got Visbeck to where he is today.  Isaiah Thomas Books and Prints is in a rambling Victorian house with enough nooks and crannies for 70,000 books.  There are some university press titles, but the selection is more eccentric than scholarly. This is the place to find old angling manuals, earnest Victorian treatises, and mid-century bestsellers.  For nearly twenty years the store has been a destination for Cape Cod bibliophiles. There is also the “screeched breaks” customer who, while speeding down Falmouth Road, is stunned—stunned and delighted—to come upon a bookstore. The store was founded (no surprise) in Worcester in 1969.  It was named after Worcester bookman, Isaiah Thomas, who was instrumental in founding the American Antiquarian Society in the years after the Revolution. Visbeck made the move to the Cape, in 1990, after his hometown had changed for the worse.  “The neighborhood was failing,” he says with reticent sadness. So he packed up his books and established himself in Cotuit. Over the years, Visbeck has seen many bookstores close. He acknowledges that the future favors the online market, but is, nonetheless, a traditionalist. “The advantages of a hands-on browse in a shop full of books can’t compare to sitting at a keyboard,” he says. Columbia Trading Company, West Barnstable Six years ago, Dick Hawkins was a retired man, who was not sure if he liked being retired.  Reading the Boston Globe was one of the many small ways he passed the time.  When he got to the classifieds, he saw the ad that would provide an outlet for all his unused energies: The Columbia Trading Company, a book dealership, was for sale.  The company was founded in the early 1980s, by a Bronx schoolteacher, who moved to Cape Cod.  It specialized in maritime publications, which suited Hawkins who had spent many years working in the transportation division of a commercial bank in Boston.  Providing financial services and advice to shipping lines was part of the job. He had, moreover, always been a reader and, over the years, built up a small collection of rare and first editions.  But his relationship to the book trade was amateur and occasional. Hawkins rose to the challenge and bought the stock and client list.  He contrasts perceptions of the book trade—with its associations of the contemplative pipe-smoking life passed among fine bindings—with the reality. “Retail is retail.  I scamp around like any small businessman.”   Although the Columbia Trading Company is open to drop-in browsers, it is true to its origins as a mail order business. Six times a year, Hawkins publishes a catalog, which is the opportunity to promote the latest acquisitions in subjects, like whaling and polar exploration.  (The inventory is also listed on the company website.) If a six-volume government report on The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States seems a bit much, there are plenty of historical novels for sale.  Not everything Hawkins sells is rare or old.  He sells new books, too, if they’re relevant to the maritime theme. Also available are a range of novelty objects—Victorian diving helmets and nautical bookends.    Some customers are traditional bibliophiles, who are attracted to vicarious adventure.  For them it is sufficiently thrilling to read about battles and piracy.  Others collect based on their experiences. Hawkins has a following among boat builders and ship modelers.  He has also gotten to know quite a few ex-navy men.  (He was an army medic in Viet Nam.)  “Working with books is all about working with fabulous, interesting people,” he says. Hawkins is optimistic about the future of the book. “The world is changing, and so are the media—mostly electronic—through which people satisfy their interests and needs,” he says. But, he predicts, these new gadgets “will be found wanting and never permanently replace the book. Titcomb’s Bookshop, East Sandwich The 1960s were the era of big families. Ralph and Nancy Titcomb had a brood of six, so they were happy to buy an old fixer-upper in Connecticut that came with acres of roaming room and a barn. The barn was at the origins of the family’s involvement in the rare book trade.  The previous owners—two elderly sisters who never threw anything away—had used it as a storeroom. There was the usual hodgepodge of castoff furniture and clothing—the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a centuries-old family place. But the trove also included piles of books and manuscripts, some dating back to the 1600s. Vicky Uminowicz, Ralph and Nancy’s first-born, recalls those gleeful early excavations. The first finds, she says, were sold to buy Heidi the dog.  After that, came the pony.  Eventually, the parents saw the long term possibilities of selling old books. With an eye toward college tuition bills, they set up a mail order business. In 1969, the family moved to Cape Cod.  The raucous caravan north included two cars, one boat, the little Titcombs (there were by then eight), and a menagerie of chickens, ducks, cats, and, of course, Heidi. The horse and pony came later.  As if there wasn’t enough to do getting settled in a place, Ralph and Nancy opened a bookstore. Like any small business, the Titcomb family has adapted to meet customer demands.  They stock plenty of half-forgotten novels and obscure travel memoirs, but there are also toys and birthday cards, and a selection of new titles. The bookstore is active in promoting visiting writers and sponsors a book club. Titcomb’s Bookshop has been a bookman’s haunt for nearly forty years with the children of the first customers now coming back with their children.  
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971