'Book people' find a haven at off-the-beat Unicorn Clientele drawn by word-of-mouth


October 14, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson Sun Staff Correspondent

TRAPPE -- Where to go for a five-volume set of Charle Dickens' "Pickwick Papers," printed on vellum and hand-illuminated in bright inks and gold leaf like medieval manuscripts?

Or how about a page from a 15th-century Psalter, a 1644 Dutcedition of Capt. John Smith's 1612 map of Chesapeake Bay or even acollectible first edition of a Tom Clancy or Stephen King thriller?

Why, to the sign of the mystical Unicorn, of course. You'll find it in Trappe, a dot on the highway between Easton and Cambridge whereroaring traffic along U.S. 50 hammers the senses day and night.

Inside the one-story building of red brick, past and present rub shoulders at the Unicorn Bookshop, where old clocks tick off the passing hours as the aroma of ancient leather bindings and old paper perfumes the air.

Here, in an admittedly off-beat location, self-described "book nut" Jim Dawson, 41, has created a haven for himself and the other "book people" he says are drawn to his shop like cats to catnip.

One tends to think of old-book stores as dark, musty places in odd nooks, frequently near museums or libraries.

But Mr. Dawson, who was educated as an English teacher but "couldn't hack it," said his location was ideal -- at least for him.

A secondhand bookstore would be out of place in a mall where glitz is the order of the day, he said. "Too many people just in and out without buying anything, and book people don't care -- they'll go anywhere."

Mr. Dawson said he did virtually no advertising, relying instead on "word of mouth and fair prices."

"Winter is actually my best season," he said. "In the summer, it's all the tourists with cars full of screaming kids."

Customers have come from almost every state and from all over Europe as well, and many later buy through the mail. Browsers do stop at his roadside shop, but the clientele is more likely to be serious about book-buying, he said.

Certainly, Kit Otto is.

The Fredericksburg, Va., resident searched through the shelves and the books piled on the floor and then forked over more than $150 for an armload of works on art, cooking and pre-Columbian art.

Mrs. Otto said she stopped in several times a year -- "every time I visit my son in Salisbury" -- and invariably found something interesting not available elsewhere.

Even though he comes from a family of teachers, Mr. Dawson, a Trappe native, said he decided against a pedagogic career during his student-teaching stint from Salisbury State University.

"You have students, parents and the Board of Education on your back. You're overworked and underpaid. You're at the bottom. But I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do,"

he said. His first real job came when Kent Callahan, a longtime friend who quit college to bounce from job to job, talked him into working as a golf course groundskeeper. In 1974, Mr. Callahan read an article about booksellers and convinced Mr. Dawson that since they were both "book nuts," they should open a shop.

For a year, Mr. Dawson said, they spent their spare cash on used books until they had enough to open a small place over a clothing and hunting supplies store in Easton in 1975. Conveniently, it was across from the Talbot County Library, "so we got a lot of business that way."

Mr. Dawson said he liked the discipline of working in the store and retained an eclectic interest in books, while Mr. Callahan steadily narrowed his interests to hunting, fishing and natural history and eventually opened a catalog business.

In 1983, Mr. Dawson decided to gamble and bought his current building, a former restaurant and a branch bank. "It was on the highway, and I wondered, 'Was it going to work?' "

It did. "I'm my own boss, and it's a helluva lot of fun," Mr. Dawson said. "I'm a book nut, so every new batch of books is like Christmas for me."

He uses book scouts and occasionally attends estate auctions, but most of his stock "walks in the door" or is touted to him by telephone and the post. "I've been doing this for 15 years, and a week doesn't go by that I don't see something really neat," Mr. Dawson said.

The "neat" things include the Dickens set, which he said was "so rare there's no information about it."

AThe edition was to be a complete set of the author's works in 130 volumes, 112 of text and 18 of illustrations. But with the painstaking process, the project never got beyond the first five books that make up the "Pickwick Papers."

"If they had kept it up the way those books were done, they would still be doing them," said Mr. Dawson, noting that only 15 sets of the books were to be sold.

He prices each of the five volumes at between $1,000 and $2,000, "but they are so lovely I haven't tried to part with them," he said.

Books are not necessarily valuable because they are old, he said. Among the most expensive books he's had was a book printed in 1932, one of 500 copies of "Records of North American Big Game Hunting," by the Derrydale Press, which specialized in hunting and fishing books.

RF "A woman walked in the door with it; I paid her $1,000 and sold it

later for $1,750," Mr. Dawson said.

The problem of a shopkeeper's falling in love with his stock led Mr. Dawson to begin collecting old maps of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay region a few years ago. Most of them are at his home, but a sampling of maps between 1814 and the 1880s, along with reproductions of older maps, covers the walls of the shop's tiny bathroom.

"I claim I specialize in books about Maryland history and Chesapeake Bay, but I couldn't keep them all. So I started collecting the maps instead so I can sell the books," Mr. Dawson said.

Why is it called the Unicorn Bookshop, a name that has led to an impressive collection of pictures, posters and innumerable other knickknacks bearing likenesses of the one-horned horse of legend?

"It was purely arbitrary," he said. "It could have been the Rabbit Bookshop or something else. Kenny and I just thought it sounded nice."

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