But the newness of it all quickly vanished after I finally moved here, and before long I was missing my old pastime of antiquing on the weekends. Pennsylvania is an old state, one of the oldest in the country, and Pennsylvanians tend to stay put. A life-changing move for most Pennsylvanians would be, say, relocating from Pittsburgh to New Castle, an hour to the north of the city. But this is what makes Pennsylvania such a great place for antiques. Things get passed down over the generations and, sooner or later, end up in a local shop or auction.
It was in the fall of that year when, the weather finally permitting me to drive around with the car windows rolled down without my life flashing before my eyes, I found myself venturing up Charleston Boulevard in search of a place called Antique Square. In those days (it really seems like an eternity ago) the only source of information was either word of mouth or the phone book. I didn’t really know anyone yet in town so I consulted the trusty old Yellow Pages and discovered that an enclave of shops was just a few miles from my house.
It’s funny sometimes how we can directly trace our collecting habits to one particular person or turn of events. The thought of being a book collector had never entered my mind. Having just spent four years in college, reading for pleasure had taken a back seat to the voluminous art history texts that were piled on me semester after semester. And although I had grown up in a houseful of readers and books I wasn’t very familiar with “old” books. But that was about to change forever.
I’ll never forget that day when I literally stumbled into “The Academy”. The door was a little stuck and I rather auspiciously fell into the shop amid the tinkling of a bell (very old fashioned). My impression of this place was immediately one of complete wonderment. It was, for lack of a better description, a complete mess. Books were piled everywhere – on the floor, on the counter, on the shelves, on top of the shelves, books piled on top of other piles of books – quite literally everywhere. And there weren’t just books. There were pictures leaning in stacks against bookcases and boxes filled with all sorts of things. Inexplicably amidst all of this extraordinary clutter was a man. He was sitting in a chair behind an “L” shaped counter piled so high with paraphernalia that when he said “hello” I wasn’t quite sure at first where the voice had come from. He asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I said no and he invited me to browse around and ask if I had any questions.
Now I should say, here and now, that The Academy has gone through a number of evolutions through the years. In 96’ there were two proprietors (the initials of the former Mr. Miller can still be found in some of the books today) whereas today there is only one. However, the store hasn’t changed all that much over the past sixteen years. It’s still a bit of a mess but, really, this is what makes this shop one the most fun and interesting you’ll visit this side of Portobello Road.
There is some semblance of rhyme and reason to the organization of the books. The front of the store has an enormous selection of the classics printed by companies such as the Easton Press, the Folio Society, the Heritage Press, and so on. Behind these is a nice selection of children’s books. Here you’ll find everything from vintage Golden Books to Victorian moral stories for children. Moving along the wall toward the counter you suddenly find yourself looking at an assortment of antiquarian books that seem to improve in quality as you move toward the counter where Gary, the proprietor, keeps a number of fabulous volumes that you’ll only see if you ask to (which can be a bit difficult if you don’t realize they’re there).
The rows here are narrow and as you move toward the back of the shop you’ll find a few alcoves impossibly carved out of the piles of books. Here you’ll find a fabulous selection of art books and museum collection publications, some of them quite old. Another alcove is dedicated to paperbacks and another to mysteries and so on. What is so wonderful about this shop is that everything is jumbled together, which really forces you to look. Slipped in between some books from the 1980s may be a wonderfully bound copy of something from the 1880s. It is all arranged topically (more or less) but discoveries can be found on just about every shelf. The low ceilings and sheer volume of stock make you feel as if you’re in an ancient book repository a la Harry Potter.
If you are someone who can’t abide hunting, or simply don’t have the patience for it, the owner of the shop is not only very helpful but seems to have an almost autistic mental inventory of the thousands of volumes he has in his stock. An ex-taxi driver, Gary Frick, is not only an unlikely bookman but a remarkable one. His knowledge of books is uncanny. There are times when you think he surely must have read every volume in his shop and, when not busy, he is always delighted to “talk shop” with his customers.
This is a book-person’s bookshop. You can literally wile away the hours in this magical little place where time seems to stand still. I remember once, quite a number of years ago, finding a pile of early twentieth-century Punch magazines in the back of the store. I became so engrossed in looking at them that I really don’t know how much time had passed before Gary appeared and said, “oh, it was so quiet I thought I’d better check on you!” What more could you want?
In a world of e-readers and mega bookstores where teenagers go to a computer and ask you how to spell "Dickens", The Academy is a book collector’s oasis. It was there that I was introduced to the wonders of book collecting; that “gentle madness” as the writer and book collector Nicholas Basbanes so aptly calls it. If you love books, or even like them for that matter, The Academy is a must on your antiquing rounds.
The Academy Fine Books is located in Antique Square at 2026 East Charleston Boulevard. The shop is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.