The Book Den East provides a treasure trove of stories
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Ivo Meisner, operator of The Book Den East in Oak Bluffs, is a man with a clear bearing, an interested man, which makes him interesting. He is tall and burly, diffident about some matters, direct about others.
He is a delicious interview because he is engaging but not self-promoting and appears given to nuance, which requires the interviewer to pay close attention. We sat last Friday afternoon on the porch in front of his used bookstore. He was reading a 1904 copy of "Dissertation Upon Roast Pig" by Charles Lamb, an English essayist of the early 19th century.
He deflects interest away from his own life and times and gestures toward the exotic wooden cavern that houses two floors of books and posters, art, and some droll artifacts, including colorful statuary of a parrot and of a flying pig suspended near the cash register.
"Found him in a bookshop at an airport in England. Had to have it," he said. The Lamb text includes illustrations of, you guessed it, winged pigs. Coincidence, probably.
The Book Den flying pig dangles a sign delivering its message in pre-Millennium broadside style: "The proprietor of The Book Den on the Island of Martha's Vineyard wishes it to be known that he desires to sell the business (or some part thereof) to a congenial person or persons, inclined to the book trade & a pleasant style of life. Please direct serious inquiries to the proprietor of The Book Den."
Mr. Meisner confirms The Book Den East is for sale but seems content to await the right buyer's arrival.
Mr. Meisner bought the 10-year-old business in 1986 and has operated it since, along with his Island law practice and several avocations, including birding and Island land protection efforts.
We know, from our conversation last week and from some research, that he is Estonian-born and was raised in Connecticut. In addition to law credentials, Mr. Meisner has a master's degree in polar studies, a subject of personal interest, at the University of Cambridge, England. He serves on the Board of Trustees of The Manuscript Society, an international group of rare manuscript and autograph collectors and museum and library scholars. He and his wife, Piret, have been cultivating a small farm in Estonia in recent years.
People like Mr. Meisner, who have a knack for such timeless professions as book selling, chimney sweeping, and wooden boat building, tend to be one-of-a-kind people. Their life perspectives tend to be not so much "contrarian to" as "other than" the mainstream view. We grow more thirsty for these sorts of people and their professions as our society is increasingly dominated by systems and procedures that promote sameness.
For example, in the case of The Book Den East, there is the matter of just how many books reside there. Now WalMart could tell you, although it probably wouldn't, how many SKUs (stock keeping units) are in any store at any time, and precisely how long each tube of toothpaste has been on the shelf. We'll never ask because we don't care.
But how many books in a venerable wooden barn redolent of books and bindings? Much more fascinating. The answer is that there could be as many as 25,000, Mr. Meisner estimates.
"We are more like an adoption agency. We like to put people together with what they are looking for for. We enjoy the people. Not everyone who comes in knows what they need to buy. They want to be surprised, to be told what's here, perhaps as a gift for another or a treat for themselves.
"There's satisfaction in finding the right book for the person. Some people from Texas were in recently. They didn't know what they were looking for. So we talked about their interests and found books they liked. It helps to know what you've got [in inventory]," he said.
"That's a nice thing about the book business, unlike the travel or food business where there's always an edginess, watching people look down their noses at a char-burger. And there's the advantage of finding stuff that tickles my fancy," he said.
Potential buyers may be thinking, "Hmm. Could be a dilettante ripe for plucking." Rethink. Mr. Meisner enjoys the business he's in, but he is a businessman.
His inventory, whatever its size, is aligned crisply by subject and author: About 30 book subjects and several subspecies. You can find what you are looking for, counter to the image of used bookshops staffed by ancient, tiny people in which browsers navigate through narrow aisles packed with teetering piles of books about who knows what. Fun but overwhelming.
The fun at The Book Den East (so named because its original antecedent was in California) is in the details. For example, rare books are defined as "Rare," "Medium Rare," and "Well Done." Related artifacts, such as a miniature functional steam turbine, pop up as you wend your way through the stacks.
Mr. Meisner keeps an eye on the product and the customer. "The nature of reading and readers in modern America has shifted. The movement to buying and downloading to a Kindle, reading from tablets, moves away from written form to electronic formats. I think that has a social impact, and I'm not sure it's positive. But that's study for social scientists not for booksellers.
"We make an effort to satisfy collectors. We used to have a good stable of collectors, such as Clarence Holt and Shel Silverstein. Shel would fill his pack with eclectic materials. To a large extent they are gone and they are not being replaced in the same proportion. People look at [rare books] often as museum pieces rather as something to own and collect," he said.
He has stories of rare treasures found, such as an autographed copy of "The Fun Of It" by Amelia Earhart that cost him 10 cents and sold for $900.
His books range in price from an Agatha Christie for a couple of bucks to original harbor cape and islands charts made by "Chart" George Eldredge for $3,900. Mr. Meisner purchases 3,000 to 5,000 books a year from individuals, libraries, online, and from other booksellers.
A benefit of the poor economy and aging is an abundance of books available for purchase, he says. "I enjoy buying books cheaply and selling them dear."
"Is there a future in this business? It depends. Not a career path I would recommend to a young person, but yes, you can make a living if you watch overhead carefully and do a lot yourself," he said.
The strength of the book business may lie in the intrinsic, personal value of books compared with, say, a microwave oven. "Everyone has an inherent relationships with books they've bought and own. Every book I take in comes with the thought that someone's going to want this book.
"A book is essentially part of your own persona," he continued. "Why do you want this particular book?"
The Book Den East is on New York Ave. in Oak Bluffs, just west of the harbor. Seasonal hours are 10 am to 5 pm Mondays through Saturdays and 1 pm to 5 pm on Sunday. Call 508-693-3946 for winter hours or email firstname.lastname@example.org.