When it comes to books, there are two categories of people.
There are those who merely read them, digesting them quickly and then moving on. Then there are the bibliophiles who love hunting for, and then acquiring, rare books to add to their collections. For the latter, a rare book is something to be cherished and admired, its personal distinction and collectible appeal softly shining on every page.
The internet has made it very easy for rare book collectors to locate the volumes they covet. At the same time, it has also eliminated most of the brick-and-mortar bookshops that served book lovers so well.
The Brick Walk Books & Fine Art on Park Road has not only managed to stay afloat during these turbulent times for bookseller, but it is prospering. For eight years, the cozy little store across the street from Hall’s Market has been stocked floor to ceiling with used and rare books and artwork, cultivating a diverse clientele that stops in regularly to peruse the stacks and chat with owner Kevin Rita.
In the late 1980s Rita was at a crossroads in his life. He had a “corporate” sort of job yet had always prized literature, having been an English and Philosophy major in college. When the owner of a Canton bookshop decided to move on, Rita jumped at the opportunity to buy the store from him. The transition from a corporate environment to shop owner was challenging in many ways. “The BMW and the suits from Pollack’s were a thing of the past,” he says.
Rita was also a retail novice and had to learn to develop a clientele in the days before the Internet changed everything. To market his specialty shop, he noted that, “I was at the mercy of who came into the store, word of mouth, mailing catalogs to people, and meeting customers through book fairs.” Slowly the store, called On The Road Bookshop, gained momentum and Rita was able to buy better books and personal collections and also garner valuable referrals.
His growing success allowed him to expand the inventory to include artwork as well, and the store moved to Farmington Avenue in the Center. After separating from his wife, who kept the fine arts portion of the store in the Center, Rita moved to his current location on Park Road.
He has continued to carry works of art combined with used and rare books and over the years he has added antique collector to his resume. “I’ve always been interested in antiques – my Mom was an antique collector and my father opened an antique store on the Cape.” He frequently participates in art fairs and antique shows but does not take part in book shows anymore, relying more on the internet to cultivate his clientele.
While the internet has proven to be a mighty nemesis for conventional bookstores, Rita relies heavily on it, acknowledging that it is a “double edged sword” for a used book dealer. “The internet is very positive in that it allows you to offer merchandise to pre-qualified audiences all over the world. I can sit here on Park Road and sell books to people in China or Spain just by virtue of cataloging them and putting them up on the internet – the reach of it is incredible,” notes Rita, adding that that reach has had an effect on the pricing of the books.
Books that might have at one time been thought of as uncommon can now pop up for sale all over the internet, even sparking a price war that could depress the price of a book from fifty dollars to five dollars. Rita warns that the condition of the book can affect the value of book and buyers must take that into consideration.
On the flip side, Rita says the internet can also prove that a book is truly scarce, thereby enhancing its value and reflecting its rarity in the asking price. While making it easier to buy and sell books, there is no doubt that the internet has reduced in-store transactions for Rita. Many of the store’s best customers were fellow book dealers, and they now manage their inventory with a simple click of the mouse.
With 6,000 volumes displayed in his store, and roughly the same number inventoried off-site in storage, Rita says that his business model does not depend on foot traffic. On certain days, he can get a steady stream of people off the street, while other days the place is as quiet as a library.
Some people seem puzzled by the cluttered shop. “There are people who wander in here and think ‘what is this place with all these piles of books and artwork?’” laughs Rita. “I do get the sense that people feel sorry for me sitting all alone in here.”
His clientele is a wide cross-section of readers with retired lawyers, doctors, and insurance executives rubbing shoulders with college students and older readers, many of whom are on fixed incomes and who don’t use the internet. Rita observes that some are looking for a certain book, and some are simply lonely, seeking conversations with a kindred spirit. He also has his share of those eager to sell him books, as they’re in need of cash. He’s very sympathetic to those situations, but many times the books are common paperbacks that are worth little to him.
One interesting note: Rita says that the overwhelming majority of book collectors are older—and they’re men.
Rita has seen some very rare items come through his store. Some that come to mind include a handwritten manuscript by Emily Dickinson; a 1791 volume written by Salem Massachusetts judge Jonathan Hale on witchcraft; and a copy of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that once belonged to Declaration of Independence signer Charles Pinckney.
When asked if there was a book he regrets having sold and not kept for himself, he ruefully admits, “I had a first edition of The Moviegoer by Louisiana author Percy Walker. It was the personal copy of Andre Dubus, who was also a Lousiana born writer. It was annotated by Dubus, packed with his comments and reflections on the book. The book was signed by Walker as well. It had it all. A client kind of wore me down and I sold it for like 5,000 dollars. It’s probably worth ten or fifteen thousand dollars now.”
Rita is philosophical about the book that got away. “They say that the book dealer that keeps the books and doesn’t let his clients have them is a fool because if your customer perceives that you are holding out on them, they will find somebody else who won’t.”
Brickwalk Books & Fine Art is located at 322 Park Road. Its hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM to 5PM. The store’s phone number is 860-233-1730. The website is firstname.lastname@example.org.