A Reader Sets About Creating A Book Lover's Haven

Neighbors/ Ferndale/Linthicum

The Paper Door, Shunning Best Sellers, Stocks The Classics

September 10, 1991|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

You won't find Kitty Kelley's "Nancy Reagan" in the Paper Door, thatlittle bookstore in downtown Linthicum. But you will find Charlotte Bronte's "Shirley."

The latest Jackie Collins potboiler isn't there, nor Stephen King's menagerie of monsters. But if you're after a lesser-known Hemingway classic like "Men Without Women," this is the place.

And if you need some obscure volume like "The History and Technique of Swiss Watch Repair" or "History of Comic Books in America," chances are that bookstore owner Charles Thomas can find it.

Ever since Thomas and his parents, Charles Sr. and Frances, opened the Paper Door three years ago at 607 Camp Meade Road, some people have mistakenly assumed that this is an old-book bookstore, full of moth-eaten paperbacks, ancient textbooks and dusty novels no one cares about.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Thomas' 5,000-title collection consists of beautiful, brand-new books by some of the best authors,past and present. It's a classy little place.

"He doesn't carry alot of best-sellers, a lot of it being junk," says Charles Thomas Sr.

Thomas, a soft-spoken man of 29, calls the Paper Door "a bookstore for readers." It's a place where people who enjoy quality literature -- and that includes everything from Shakespeare to cookbooks to science to children's stories -- can find everything they can't find at bookstore chains.

"I always got frustrated going to places wherethey only had the latest books," Thomas says. "If you go looking forCharles Dickens, they might have five copies of the most popular thing he wrote. Here, we try to have one copy of everything he wrote."

Or take the Bronte sisters. Every bookstore carries "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre." But more obscure works like "Shirley" or "AgnesGray" are hard to find.

Unlike book chains, which make money by selling large volumes of merchandise, Thomas depends on special ordersfor 50 percent of his business. He'll spend hours looking for a book. Even out-of-print volumes sometimes can be located by contacting people who work specifically with material no longer in print, he says.

For someone who's always loved good books, it's a pleasant way tomake a living -- and a striking contrast to Thomas' other career. Inthe mornings, before he comes into the bookstore, he works as a truck mechanic for Fleet Service Inc., founded by his father and now run by one of his brothers.

Thomas worked for his father's company while growing up in Linthicum. He studied philosophy and mass communications in college, but then, like many liberal arts students, was at a loss as to where to go from there.

"I said, 'What are you going todo?' " Charles Thomas Sr. recalls. "He said, 'I guess I'll work for you back in the garage business.' I kept trying to come up with things I thought he would like to do. None of my suggestions were accepted, until one day I said, 'How about a bookstore?' "

Together, the Thomases invested $25,000 in the store, buying about 1,000 books to start. "I wanted to have stuff I could never find any place else," Thomas says.

"We're still getting started. I don't think people aroundhere are used to the idea of an independent bookstore," he says. Thestore is holding its own, though Thomas depends on his work as a mechanic to keep it afloat.

His collection has grown to 5,000 titles,with an emphasis on literature, religion and science. The Thomases discovered a surprisingly strong market for science literature among employees of Westinghouse Corp. and other local firms. Books by and about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman are among their strongest sellers.

The best-selling book at the Paper Door? It's a $4.95 paperback children's book, "Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch, about a mother whose love for her son remains constant as he grows up,and who finally finds herself being cared for by him as she once cared for him.

"Mothers just read it and start crying, and then they buy it," Thomas says.

Thomas, who got married two weeks ago and lives in Glen Burnie, doesn't expect to get rich in the book business. Maybe he could make more money by stocking up on bodice-ripper romances and second-rate pop fiction, but he isn't willing to do that.

"Those are flash-in-the-pan books," he says. "They sell well and just die. I want stuff that's going to last. It's fine to have books that sell well now, but are they going to be around in 20 years?"

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