Brandywine Valley is home to a rich treasury in print Pennsylvania: Baldwin's Book Barn may seem off the beaten track, but since 1934 book lovers have been beating a path to its door.

November 08, 1998|By Terry Conway | Terry Conway,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Deep in Pennsylvania's enchanting Brandywine Valley sits a treasure for passionate book lovers - Baldwin's Book Barn. Founded 50 years ago, Baldwin's resides in a rustic, stone dairy barn stuffed to the rafters with a trove of 300,000 used, fine and rare books. They are piled in stacks, in glass cases, in orange crates, on tables and in bookcases lining the stairwells that snake through the five-story labyrinth of rooms in the 1822 structure.

Volumes of stories fill not only the bookshelves, but also the shop's past. There was the time Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Claude Raines and Malcolm Forbes dropped in to explore. Or the summer the "Good Morning America" crew paid a visit and later presented co-host Charlie Gibson with a classic Dickens set from the Book Barn. On occasion painter Andrew Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, stop by to browse; his books and prints (many signed) are popular buys.

A typical weekend brings 200 to 300 customers from the region as well as visitors on holiday; the parking lot overflows. The Book Barn's contents cover about 200 topics, the most popular subjects being religion, American history, cooking, gardening and children's books.

"Book lovers have been coming here for half a century," says Paul Rodenbaugh, a Chester County historian. "With the rolling countryside and the charming atmosphere of the barn, many people believe the Book Barn is one of the best general bookstores in the country. History comes alive here."

The shop has owned books dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1985, acting as an agent for a foreign private collector, it made its largest transaction - $3 million for a first edition of the "Audubon Birds of North America." The hub of rare books is on the barn's second floor. Here, the exquisite leather bindings and rare titles are tended by the founders' son, Tom Baldwin, who travels to book auctions throughout the United States and Europe in search of uncommon finds.

Scenic setting

Getting to Baldwin's Book Barn is part of the fun. Located about 35 minutes west of Philadelphia, the shop is near the tiny village of Chadds Ford, home to legendary artists the Wyeths - Andrew, his father, N.C., and his son, Jamie. Navigating tree-lined state Route 100 that hugs the Brandywine River, you glide by rolling meadows dotted with fieldstone barns until a dogleg right steers you onto state Route 52, where, after a couple of miles, at a curve of the winding road, you'll find the Book Barn.

Adirondack chairs perched on 5 acres of rolling, emerald-green lawn flank picnic tables set under a spreading cherry tree. The barn and attached frame milking house, an example of classic Colonial workmanship, feature stone walls 42 inches thick and 16-inch-square oak beams held together by wooden pegs to support the enormous lofts once redolent of hay.

The hand-hewn oak beams, softly worn floorboards, an inviting wood stove and the soothing sound of an old regulator ticking clock provide a comfortable backdrop to the book hunt.

The front room (where horses once were stabled) has the look of an Old West general store. Along with the antique potbellied stove, a partner's desk and a counter that looks as though it was shipped in from an 1880s Colorado mining town, Pip - the latest generation of Baldwin's Jack Russell terriers - can be found.

Modest beginnings

It began in 1934 with William Baldwin's small collection of history books and his wife Lilla's batch of postage stamps. With these modest resources they opened Chester County, Pa.'s, first used-book store in a well-known Realtor's basement. To increase their stock, the Baldwins would spend a few days each week foraging the county for books, maps, magazines, stamps, letters or any other printed material.

When William came home from World War II in 1946, he and Lilla pursued their dream with vigor and a fair amount of imagination. To raise capital for an old dairy barn they had spotted in the rolling countryside, they held an auction in Wilmington, Del., of more than 10,000 books they had collected.

"The bankers thought my father was mad," says their 59-year-old son. "Here he was proposing to sell books in a barn out in the middle of nowhere. They almost wouldn't give him a mortgage."

But they did.

Baldwin's Book Barn was opened to the public in August 1948, and over the last half century has steadily carved out a reputation among book lovers.

"My mother tended the shop and was responsible for buying the books, prints and paintings," says Baldwin. "She was very proud of it. To her, it wasn't just a business. She believed our books were a service to the community."

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