On any given day, they're booked up

Store: For Terry and Don Johanson, owners of the Kelmscott Bookshop, the printed word is their stock in trade.

June 20, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The rumor moved with surprising swiftness, as ugly rumors do. Kelmscott Bookshop was for sale, its owners tired of the six-day-a-week grind. Kelmscott Bookshop had closed, along with the other stores on 25th Street's "Book Row," to make way for the new drug store.

But Kelmscott - which anticipated Book Row by several years when it opened in 1977 and now survives it - lives on as a bibliophile's outpost. "Why don't you write about that?" its owners inquired politely. "Isn't there a story in our very survival?"

And so there is.

It is a typical day at Kelmscott, which means that anything can happen and anyone might walk through the door. The one constant is the classical music, WBJC, and the near-constant is Teresa "Terry" Johanson, buzzing visitors in through the front door and writing out receipts in her flowing script.

And then there is the smell. How to describe it? Musty, yes, but lovely, too - a kind of grandmother's-basement smell, a smell created by tens of thousands of volumes, rescued and rehabilitated, and now waiting on the crowded shelves of two combined Baltimore rowhouses for the right person to take them home.

In some cases, Johanson will dip into her voluminous personal files and nudge the relationship along, act the part of matchmaker. So-and-so collects James Joyce; surely he will want this children's book by the Irish writer. Or this one likes Edith Wharton and here, at last, is the "Age of Innocence" she needs to complete her collection.

"It's a game of survival," Johanson says. "You almost have to have a strategy of how to get through the week." Toward that end, Kelmscott also appraises collections (at $75 an hour) and runs its own bindery.

Terry and Don Johanson, originally from New York, met as students at the University of Arizona. They left Arizona for teaching jobs in Blacksburg, Va., careening out of town in a potato chip delivery truck filled with books. Soon, Don decided to open his own small store on the side, the Odd Volume.

"He's the kind of person," Terry says of her husband, "who isn't happy unless he buys a book every day."

"Only one book a day?" Don asks, when told of the characterization.

They soon decided they wanted to leave teaching and run a book store full-time, which would require moving to a larger city. Methodically and carefully, they examined their options. Washington was too expensive. Richmond, Va., and Wilmington, Del., were too sleepy. But Baltimore, then on the cusp of its fabled renaissance - why, Baltimore, as Goldilocks herself might have said, was just right. They bought a house in Guilford for themselves and their three children, and a single rowhouse on 25th Street. (The second would come a few years later.) They needed two trucks to move their collection of 10,000 books north.

Today, it would take a fleet -not that they plan to move again. Terry estimates they have 80,000 volumes; Don thinks that number is a little high. They specialize in literature and Menckenania, Greek and Latin classics. And history, of course, and modern firsts, and Marylandia. Then there's the room where books on Utopia yield to books on Unions, and this somehow leads us to Espionage.

A (gasp) computer

The newest and most jarring addition to Kelmscott is a bright blueberry iMac, visible through the window on 25th Street. Some people come in just to admire the computer. Terry thinks it's ugly, and Don is proud to say he's computer illiterate.

The Internet is neither their enemy nor their salvation. Terry thinks they do about 20 percent to 25 percent of their business via the Web (www.kelmscottbookshop.com). Don thinks it might be a little more. On Monday of this particular week, for example, they had almost a dozen orders.

But that's as a percentage of titles sold. When it comes to revenue, the big sales come from cultivating serious collectors who are willing to pay serious money for their wares. One of the regulars - they have about 500 chronics, including many other booksellers - dropped $2,000 in the store. "But two months of work went into putting together that sale," Don notes.

Alfred Strati, who likes to describe himself as a dump truck driver - he owns a black-top business and lives in Roland Park - began frequenting Book Row about 15 years ago. He found his wife, Elissa, working behind the counter at Tiber, but Kelmscott had the inventory that kept him coming back. (Tiber is still on 25th Street, but now sells its books exclusively through its Internet site.)

"I gravitated toward them," says Strati, who collects first American editions of the work of Anthony Trollope and estimates his library at 3,000 volumes. "They're very personable."

"Oh, it's a wonderful shop," says Jean Gartlan, a retired Catholic Relief Services worker who discovered Kelmscott shortly after moving to Baltimore in 1989. Gartlan keeps an eye out for books by Virginia Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury group. "But Terry is very naughty - she keeps finding things."

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