Used-book store creates a calm oasis Readers slow down for Books With a Past

November 12, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Traffic buzzes by on Route 97 in Glenwood as people rush into the local strip mall to drop off laundry, see the dentist, pick up some liquor or buy a candy bar from High's.

They're in a hurry.

But squeezed between a video rental business and a pub is an oasis of calm -- a used-book store.

Books With a Past opened at the Inwood Village Center in June 1996, and owners Mary Alice Schaefer and Marvin Schaefer have only just begun to break even financially.

Conventional wisdom says you open a used-book store near a college campus or a large shopping mall, not in a strip mall in the midst of suburbia, where shops specialize in grabbing a customer for a quick stop at something like a convenience store.

"Didn't even know it was there," says Sean Hanyok, 18, who has been working as a clerk at High's for two weeks. "Doesn't seem like a good place for it. Most people just come here to get food or something fast."

But the Schaefers wouldn't have located anywhere else.

"Where else would we go? We're from here," says Mary Alice Schaefer, who lives five miles away. "This is a destination business anyway. People come here from all over."

About 60,000 volumes crowd the custom-made shelves in this well-lighted store. Unlike some used-book stores that specialize in first editions or rare titles, Books With a Past primarily sells books by well-known authors bought from people looking to clean out attics and unclutter libraries.

Schaefer says she has customers who regularly make the 45-minute drive from Baltimore and the hourlong drive from Washington, attracted by ads in the Yellow Pages or a tip from a friend.

Sometimes the store receives referrals from a larger outlet if a title is out of print.

The Schaefers say they have always wanted to retire into the used-book business. To get the feel for it, they apprenticed at a store in Gaithersburg.

On a recent afternoon, around lunchtime, several people browse the store's shelves while others hurry past the outside windows.

Some carry dirty laundry. Some head for the liquor store. But here, the afternoon eases along.

Centuries-old books crowd some shelves, their pages browning with age, their spines creased from unknown fingers.

On other shelves, modern paperbacks are stacked like bricks, a prism of color.

The Schaefers are longtime lovers of words, their Glenwood home filled with thousands of volumes.

Eventually, Schaefer says, plans call for her husband to retire from his job as a mathematician at Arca Systems in Columbia to manage the store full time.

Timothy Resau, 45, of Columbia comes to the store every few months. On this day, he finds first editions by his two favorite authors: Walker Percy and E. L. Doctorow.

"It's easy to find a couple of books, suits me just fine," Resau said.

Kathy Harris, 40, of Baltimore, is on her first visit, browsing the children's selections while cradling a cookbook. She says she is thinking about bringing her family back. But then again, maybe not.

"They'd all leave with a handful of books, like 30 each," says Harris, a jeweler. "That could be hard to manage."

Harris says she enjoys hunting for used books in dark, grimy stores -- getting a sense of accomplishment after finding an elusive title buried in a pile. But this store has a different feeling.

"It's a little more relaxing to browse here," she says, as she thumbs through a cookbook that probably came from the nTC kitchen of a nearby resident. Ninety-five percent of the store's stock comes from people who live near the store. James ODell asks Schaefer to appraise 80 nonfiction books. Huffing from carrying the four boxes from his car, ODell says he is selling only those books he would never read again.

"I was just running out of space at home," said ODell, 47, of Glen Burnie. "I keep getting new ones to read."

There might be another new customer a few doors away, at Glenwood Liquors and Wine.

"I've been working here four weeks, and I didn't know they were there," says cashier Tammy Spivey, 37.

"Now that I have time to read again, maybe I'll visit it," she adds.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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