The beauty and mystery of old books

Dan Sofaer (photo by Dion Ogust)

“One of the reasons we can’t all go over to Kindles is that they will never have old manuscripts folded into them,” declares Dan Sofaer, after telling the story of a letter he found in an old book purchased from the collection of a Woodstocker who passed away. Having established Phoenicia’s Woodland Valley Books just over a year ago, Sofaer recently purchased the Reader’s Quarry, at 97 Tinker Street, across from the Library, a used bookstore located in Woodstock since 1974.

Now that websites like Alibris.com and ABEbooks.com have become resources for finding old books, Sofaer finds it necessary to hawk his titles through the Internet, just to make a living. But the physical bookstore, like the physical book, is irreplaceable for the browsing public.

On a Thursday afternoon, Sofaer is standing in the middle of the Reader’s Quarry, its blond shelves glowing warm in the filtered sunlight. “Here we have a shelf of books on ‘U.S. Presidents and Americana,’” he points out, “cheek and jowl with ‘Poetry and Spirituality.’ I like that juxtaposition. What did Nixon really know about the Bhagavad-Gita?”

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Like the Phoenicia branch of Sofaer’s nascent used-book empire, the Reader’s Quarry has “something for everyone,” he says, but the Woodstock store also has, predictably, an emphasis on the arts — both fine art and crafts, from painting and sculpture to jewelry-making and pottery.

He respects former owner Anne Benson for her choice of books. “She didn’t just impose her personal taste. She created a place where different people can find different things.”

Benson bought the store nine years ago from founder Peggy Laughner, whose photo hangs over Sofaer’s desk. In the picture, Laughner is standing in front of the Quarry’s former location across from Twin Gables. “I’ve learned the history of bookstores in the area,” notes Sofaer. “It makes me feel part of a concerted effort to deliver books to the public.”

The granddaddy of local bookstores, Editions, was a vast warren of book-filled rooms on Route 28 in Ashokan. It closed several years ago, after a brief downsizing to a location in Boiceville, and then owner Norman Levine died. His widow has helped Sofaer acquire stock and given him useful advice.

He started the Phoenicia bookstore, he says, “because I wanted to be around books, and I wanted to have a way of getting into town more. I’m a writer, and one of the dangers can be isolation.” Sofaer is a novelist and a published poet, and he sits on the board of a Boston-based literary magazine called Fulcrum.

But he also loved the Reader’s Quarry and often visited Benson in her store. She had been wanting to spend more time with her grandchildren, and she offered to sell him the shop. “It was such a special opportunity,” muses Sofaer. “And now I have double the chance of having a book someone asks me for. Also, I live halfway between Woodstock and Phoenicia, so I was always deeply conflicted about where to have lunch.”

Owning a shop has been an eye-opener for Sofaer, who has been learning “all the skills you need to have a business. I see the world differently now, the challenges business owners face, subject to the whims of people. There are so many things you need to know about taxes, marketing. People feel strongly that you should have signage and regular hours. I’ve thought about it, and maybe it is a profound truth, that you need those things.”

The sign over the door of Woodland Valley Books is elegant but unobtrusive, mostly dark green on brown. Many local residents are unaware that the store exists, occupying a space above Phoenicia’s Ice Cream Station on Main Street.

The Reader’s Quarry is set back from Tinker Street, partially obscured by the building that houses Euphoria Yoga, but Sofaer has kept the yellow and green sandwich signs that Benson set up near the sidewalk to guide customers to the shop door.

“It’s a great spot,” he enthuses. “You have all these young ladies next door doing yoga, coming out in a state of bliss.”

The bookshop is small, intimate, and peaceful. “The other day, Anne reproached me for not removing the dead flies from the display window,” smiles Sofaer.

Two women wander in to peruse the shelves. One says she’s just looking, but the other asks, “Do you have any books on crafts?”

Part of the excitement of Sofaer’s job is the thrill of discovery. Much of the stock of used bookstores comes from the libraries of the recently deceased. As he was looking through the books of one Woodstocker who was seeking to sell her stepmother’s collection, he came across a copy of Saul Baron’s The Social and Religious History of the Jews. Inside was a letter from Jacques Maritain, a theologian and philosopher of the existential period.

From the collection of Natalie Kaye, a longtime patron of the Golden Notebook, Sofaer acquired a copy of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye with a “first-state” dust jacket. “It’s like a first edition,” he explains, “but first editions had various jackets. This one was brief and very rare.”

Despite the recession, collectors are still buying rare books, but the Internet has altered the values of first editions and other treasures. “Books that used to be worth a lot because they were hard to find are now easy to get,” says Sofaer, “although there are some booksellers who will overcharge just because someone absolutely needs a book for their dissertation.”

Currently the market favors the 20th century. “It’s hard to establish value for a lot of 19th century books,” he says. “They’re long and not much in demand. I have a signed Oliver Wendell Holmes that no one’s interested in. The authors who are sought after are people like Beckett.”

He sees a strong connection between writers’ critical reputations and economic values, with booksellers, appraisers, auctioneers, and collectors sensitive to commentaries in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, and London Review of Books.

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Sofaer has held talks and poetry readings at the Phoenicia store over the past year. Next up is a discussion of local journalism with the editors of several local news organizations, scheduled for Saturday, August 25, at 2 p.m.

Reader’s Quarry Bookshop is located at 97 Tinker Street, Woodstock. It is open from noon to 5 p.m. every day through Labor Day. Woodland Valley Books, at 74 Main Street in Phoenicia, is open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so.