A few old titles worth rediscovering

On The Bay

Bookstore: In Jim Dawson's Unicorn Bookshop, old maps and out-of-print books offer an uncommon perspective of the Eastern Shore.

June 18, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE NONDESCRIPT brick building, a few feet from U.S. 50 where it passes through Trappe, between Easton and Cambridge, might seem an unlikely entrance to the delights of the Chesapeake Bay.

The sign outside, Old Books, only hints at the shelves inside filled with secondhand, rare and out-of-print volumes about Maryland, the Eastern Shore and the bay.

I'll confess that I usually pass by Jim Dawson's Unicorn Bookshop -- stopping is guaranteed to cost me money and add to already formidable stacks of unread books.

But recently a friend reacquainted me with Robert de Gast's "The Oystermen of the Chesapeake" (1970), maybe the finest photographic study of watermen ever published.

It's long out of print, and you almost never see one, even in libraries. But of course Dawson had "a few copies," and at a price less than you'd pay for many new paperbacks.

Dawson, a Trappe native, has been in the old-book business almost 25 years. He talked as I browsed, unable to resist an old British edition of "Wind in the Willows" (most of the labyrinthine store is devoted to titles other than of Maryland and the bay).

De Gast's "Oystermen" isn't much in demand, he said (the photographer, living in Mexico, once told me it never made him much money even when it was published).

It is among several fine but obscure bay titles that, in Dawson's opinion and mine, deserve to be rediscovered.

One of his favorites in this category, Dawson says, is Gilbert Klingel, whose book of essays, "The Bay," has been mostly obscure since its publication in 1951.

"This book is about a wonderful place," the book begins. Its author was a scientist with a fully developed sense of wonder, and some skill with a welding torch -- Klingel also wrote a definitive text on steel shipbuilding.

In "The Bay," he writes of his descents into the Chesapeake depths -- less murky with algae in his day -- in a crude bathyscaph he constructed.

A bay book of the same vintage as Klingel's, Hulbert Footner's "Rivers of the Eastern Shore," does get lots of requests (and has never gone out of print).

The book, a delightful mix of fact and anecdote, accompanied by wonderful Aaron Sopher drawings, "is just one of those perennials. It will be selling a hundred years from now," Dawson says.

In recent years, Dawson has gotten into old maps of Maryland and the Chesapeake region, and one could spend hours in the Unicorn's upstairs looking at this collection.

As I think of maps, they seem pricey. But if one looks at them as art, as antiques and maybe as investments, the prices, ranging up to a few thousand dollars, might not be out of line.

One of his higher-end maps, a late-1600s reproduction of Capt. John Smith's 1612 map of the Chesapeake, published in Amsterdam, is astoundingly accurate compared with the latest navigation charts of the bay's shoreline.

An 1827 map of the Eastern Shore was fascinating to me for what it did not show -- no trace of Fishing Bay, a huge expanse of open water that defines Dorchester County's midsection.

A theory says Fishing Bay was created, almost overnight, by a huge storm that hit the bay not long after that map was published. Later maps all seem to show it, while earlier ones do not.

Dawson's map room contains "bird's-eye view" maps, drawing the Shore and the bay region from a perspective of hovering over, say, Philadelphia.

Other old maps show the original names of current bayside towns, like Damned Quarter, now Dames Quarter (in Somerset County); and Tobacco Sticks, now Madison (in Dorchester County).

One 1778 map of the bay has beautifully detailed written instructions on compass headings and how to line up marks to navigate around the Chesapeake -- all in French.

Other fine books among the overlooked, Dawson says, would have to include the late Varley Lang's "Follow the Water," published in 1961. A Ph.D. and waterman who grew up on the Miles River, Long wrote with insight and from personal experience.

One book Dawson does sell frequently, but never recommends, is James Michener's "Chesapeake."

"I think if anyone else had written that, it would have sold three copies," he says.

It is always fascinating to see the small slices of life that have made it into book form. "Unto the Least of These," by Polly Ross, is about growing up in an orphanage in Easton.

On the door of the Unicorn, a local collector advertises that he will pay $300 for a copy of "Dream Adventures of Little Bill," apparently a children's book. Dawson says he has never seen nor heard of it.

If you are considering plunging into bay writing, Dawson's advice, based on the requests he gets, is "Indians of Early Maryland," or "Chesapeake Watercraft."

The Unicorn is also the place to go for long-out-of-print copies of Gilbert Byron's lovely Chesapeake poetry. Dawson, by printing a few of the late poet's final works, began a modest revival of interest in Byron.

Pub Date: 6/18/99

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