Charlie Calkins with Norb Blei
If you’re the kind of book addict who hangs out in used bookstores, who has a mental map of every used bookstore within a certain radius of wherever you happen to be passing through, who has a certain thing about first editions and signed first editions, who can tell the quality and depth of a used bookstore by the sheer smell of the place…chances are (here in Door County) you may have run into a bookman by the name of Charlie Calkins sometime, checking out the shelves at Peter Sloma’s “The Peninsula Bookman” in Fish Creek, or Kubie Luchterhand’s, “Caxton Wm .Books Ltd.” (12037 Hwy 42 Ellison Bay. Charlie, of medium-build, gray hair, gray beard, friendly smile, hearty laugh, is probably the most affable guy in the shop, looking for anything and everything on Wisconsin.
He’s a kind a peripatetic bookman/dealer. Here, there, everywhere. An affable guy of medium build, gray hair, friendly smile and hearty laugh. No particular bookshop of his own where he can be found on the premises. Just some rental spaces in various malls (the Peninsula Antique Center, 7150 Hwy 42, in Egg Harbor) and a phone number and an e-mail address where you can find him, tell him of your wants and needs. That is all he requires—and he’ll be out there looking/searching for you. Charlie Calkins, bookman extraordinaire, always in the hunt.
Sometime he’s just grazing, looking to enhance his stock–checking for titles he doesn’t have, or doesn’t have enough of; sometimes he’s waiting to be surprised (a rare Wisconsin book he never expected to find); and sometimes he’s on particular mission (notes In hand, memories in his head) looking for a special order–maybe that writer-guy up in Ellison Bay, who’s always got him on the search for something: a signed, first edition, of Hjalmar R. Holand’s autobiography, MY FIRST EIGHTY YEARS, a first edition of Fred L. Holmes’ OLD WORLD WISCONSIN, a copy of Virgil J. Vogel’s, INDIAN NAMES ON WISCONSIN’S MAP, to mention just a few.
People with obsessions always interest me. Especially collectors. Especially the book ‘crazed.’ I relate to those for whom enough is never enough. In Charlie Calkin’s case (Wisconsin books and ‘paper’ his priority) I discovered a very knowledgeable friend with a good nose for obscure books. A rare bird. Not to mention a rare bookman in an odd ‘business’ who is a story unto himself.
How does someone get into this kind of business?
“At the time I got started selling,” Charley will tell you, “ I had been teaching a course entitled The Geography of Wisconsin for about 25 years. During that period I had developed a very substantial professional library of books related to Wisconsin. I would loan books to students, and for whatever reasons the books would not come back to me. As I went to rummage sales, flea markets, estate sales, and library used books sales, I would buy duplicates and triplicates of books loaned to students to maintain my “supply”.
“One day my wife said, “Charlie, what are you going to do with all of those Wisconsin books in our basement?” At about the ’ame time as my wife’s rather pointed question (read “ Get rid of some of those books!!!”), a former neighbor and friend who managed an antiques mall suggested that I begin selling my surplus Wisconsin books through that venue. And so, my life as a used, out-of-print and rare bookseller began. This was in 1994. As a professional geographer, it only seemed natural that I should add a very important tool of our “trade”–the map–to my inventory, and I began selling gently used Wisconsin maps, as well.
“The first request I ever received for a specific book came from a lady who wanted to give it to her father for Christmas. I remember the book very well; the title was TM, THE MILWAUKEE ELECTRIC RAILWAY AND LIGHT COMPANY, an out-of-print book that is a history of Milwaukee’s electric rail network. As I recall the book was selling at the time for $125.00.
“At the outset I had no more than about 500 items in my inventory. That number has grown very substantially over time. Today I would estimate that my inventory numbers about 5,000 books and countless maps and pieces of ephemera. In this regard we are back where it all began. Now my wife has broadened her question asks: “What are you going to do with all of that paper stuff in our basement?” The used book business (the book business period) is not what it used to be, given the internet, Amazon.com, etc. How has all this affected the personal, old fashioned book business of Charlie Calkins?
“When I began buying books, the so-called “bible” of the trade was a national publication called AB Bookman’s Weekly, which offered both books for sale and books wanted sections. The rapid rise of the internet as a formidable competitor in this regard soon brought about the death of that publication, because the internet sped up the process of buying and selling books. Moreover, the internet brought together buyers and sellers from a much larger –actually a worldwide–geographic area”
You don’t enlist Charlie’s friendship and services for any book on the latest bestsellers list, or for whatever book Oprah may be pitching at the moment. Charley’s customers, percentage-wise, probably can’t even be calculated.
But if you’re a lover of Wisconsin history and culture, Charlie’s probably your man, no matter how esoteric the subject, how obscure the publication.
“Any form of the printed word, now, is of interest to me,” says Charlie “so long as it pertains in some fairly direct way to Wisconsin. In addition to books and maps, I look for advertising, photographs, ephemera and a whole host of related material. Of particular interest to me are two related kinds of publications that I look for and in which I specialize. Wisconsin county histories and plat books (which contain land ownership maps) are always on my want list. They are becoming very hard to find in decent condition any more, and, as a result, tend to be very expensive Over the years I have gained somewhat of a reputation as a Wisconsin paper specialist and often get requests for all sorts of both common and unusual paper-related items. As is the case with most dealers, “the hunt” is really fascinating for me. You just never know what is out there waiting to be discovered.
Charlie Calkins, Bookseller
“My customers, in general, tend to be people who have a strong interest in some aspect of the history of Wisconsin or are especially interested in the local history of some place within the state. The interest in some local area is commonly tied to family members who once lived there. I commonly get requests for the history of some town, township, or county that makes mention of a particular family member by name. I guess that you could term this “ the roots phenomenon”. Also people want to acquire plat maps that show grandpa’s farm or the property of some other relative. Genealogists are folks with this kind of interest, especially.”
Let’s suppose one is new to Door County and wants to learn more about it through early books and pamphlets. Where does one begin? What does a Wisconsin rare bookman like Charlie Calkins suggest a new resident purchase?
Or better yet, what might comprise a collectible (highly collectible?) shelf of Door County books that reflect the local history, culture…a real sense of place?
“To begin with, one should know something about the physical fundament of this rather unique place. A good start would be F. T. Thwaites and Kenneth Bertrand’s article titled “Pleistocene Geology of the Door Peninsula, Wisconsin,” which appeared in BULLETIN OF THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA, vol 68, 1957, pp. 831-880.
“For a general understanding of the flora of the area, JOURNEYS IN GREEN PLACES by Virginia Eifert would fill the bill in a non-technical way. Roy Lukes’ ONCE AROUND THE SUN would give one a sense of what might be called the seasonal rhythms of nature in Door County.
“If one was serious about developing a good Door County library, a must would be Hjalmar Holand’s HISTORY OF DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN; THE COUNTY BEAUTIFUL, originally published in 1917 and now very hard to find in the first edition. Thankfully this two volume set was reprinted in 1993 by Wm. Caxton Ltd of Ellison Bay and is readily available. On a lighter note, the same author self-published OLD PENINSULA DAYS, more of an anecdotal history of the county, which has gone through several different editions and re-printings.
“To gain and understanding and appreciation for the coming together of land and life in Door County, Norbert Blei’s book–DOOR WAY–is must reading.
“There are several rather unique institutions here and to know something about them is essential. In this regard, for example, Fulkerson and Corsin’s THE STORY OF THE CLEARING and Lukes’ THE RIDGES SANCTUARY are good places to start. One of my favorite series of books is titled DOOR COUNTY ALMANAK. Five different numbers make up the series. Whereas number one deals with a variety of topics, numbers two through five treat orchards, fishing, farms, and tourism/transportation, respectively in considerable detail and from many different angles. Water is a topic of great importance in and around Door County, and it has received considerable attention in the written word. I would recommend Walter and Mary Hirthe’s SCHOONER DAYS IN DOOR COUNTY and KEEPERS OF THE LIGHT by Steven Karges, which treat water-related topics in most interesting ways. The titles suggested would be a good start on a basic Door County bookshelf. There are many other possibilities if one is so inclined. If you acquire all of these titles and still have money left to spend on Door County books, please get in touch, and I will be most happy to sell you other titles.
“One of the titles I could have also recommended for a basic Door County library of books but did not was Charles I. Martin’s HISTORY OF DOOR COUNTY, published in 1881, and this date makes it one of the very earliest books treating the area. It is a very rare book; I have an extensive Door County collection, and I do not own a copy. As a matter of fact, I have been looking for a copy for over 25 years and have never ever seen a copy for sale!”
As to the other increasingly rare and valuable books on the county…and if one had, say, a few hundred dollars to ‘invest: in a rare or rare Door County books, what would Charley advise?
“There are so many very valuable items in this regard, it is difficult to identify just a few. In general though, imprints from the Territory of Wisconsin between 1836 and 1848 are in demand and quite expensive.”
As for one particular Wisconsin item Charlie favors above all others?
“My personal favorite is the ILLUSTRATED HISTORICAL ATLAS OF WISCONSIN, published in 1881 by H. R. Page & Co. of Chicago. Please remember that by profession I was a geography professor with an abiding interest in maps. This atlas addresses that interest in detail for my native state. All of the maps are hand colored and they are beauties. I spend hours studying the maps.”
I wonder about a day-in-the-life of a Wisconsin rare bookman like Charlie. The range of territory he might cover in Wisconsin, the Midwest. How much time he might spend on this a day, week, month? Does he have the territory ‘mapped’ in his own mind? Does he know exactly what he’s looking for? Just browsing, hoping to be surprised? Does he carry a list? A notebook? What’s the joy/satisfaction in all this?
“There is no single ‘day-in-the-life of Charlie Calkins’, “ he explains. “Rather there are several different “typical” days (plural) in my role as a bookseller. One day may be spent at a flea market such as the Elkhorn Antiques Flea Market held in Elkhorn, Wisconsin or Maxwell Street Day located in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, looking for items to buy and resell. Another day may find me at an auction somewhere within a radius of 200 miles of Waukesha, my home. An estate sale within the Milwaukee metropolitan area may occupy a good part of yet another day, because something of interest may be advertised. An antiques dealer friend and neighbor and I will spend a day or two a month going to antiques mall and shops in southern Wisconsin looking for “sleepers” to buy and, in turn, resell. Let’s not forget the possibilities at rummage sales. There is never a dull moment. “The hunt” is really the fun part of this business. No dealer that I know really enjoys spending time researching and pricing items. It’s the hunt!!! You never know what you might find at the next stop.”
This is a fascinating bookman providing a valuable service for a very small minority of customers. And for any reader wishing to make contact with Charlie, the search for him goes something like this—in Charlie’s own words:
“I sell through several different antiques malls. Currently I have booths in malls in Waukesha, Milwaukee, Watertown, and in Door County I am located at Peninsula Antiques Center just south of Egg Harbor. At present I do not sell on the internet and probably will not do so in the future. I do not relish spending time in front of a computer; I would rather be out looking for items. People who frequent antiques malls find my booths, because normally I am the only one selling the kind of merchandise that I do, and my booth kind of jumps out at them. Moreover, people who see my books and maps refer me to family and friends from whom I receive inquiries about items they are wanting to buy. At all of my booths, I have business cards and they find their way into the hands of many people. I get phone calls (262-547-6572) or emails (email@example.com) routinely from folks looking specific items. If I do not have the item in stock, I will search for it. With luck, I can find that elusive title and make someone very happy. Satisfied customers keep returning.”