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Chesco bookshop is a rare find itself

Here's what you won't find in Tom Macaluso's bookshop in Kennett Square: Paperbacks, textbooks, self-help books, abridged books, Hollywood biographies.

"The Trial of Spirits" by William Dell, printed by Ben Franklin in 1760.
"The Trial of Spirits" by William Dell, printed by Ben Franklin in 1760.Read more

Here's what you won't find in Tom Macaluso's bookshop in Kennett Square:

Paperbacks, textbooks, self-help books, abridged books, Hollywood biographies.

The latest potboiler by Danielle Steele, pop-psych inspirational by Dr. Phil, or sententious sermon by PBS sage Wayne Dyer.

Instead, you'll find De Rerum Natura by the Epicurean poet Lucretius, published in 1546 and in its original binding.

And three volumes of theology printed in Philadelphia in 1759 and 1760 by Ben Franklin.

And the first American edition of Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes by abolitionist Anthony Benezet, published in 1760 by Germantown printer Christopher Sower.

And the first edition of the movie-related version of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, complete with its original dust jacket.

Last year, the nation's publishing houses disgorged about 150,000 new titles. Macaluso's shop, housed in six rooms in merged twins on a busy corner in the Chester County burg, holds only 25,000 books from the last four centuries. But they are, as Macaluso's business card proclaims, "rare and fine."

"Classics," he elaborates. "Carefully selected, about things of lasting interest."

Nearly all of the books are old and beautifully made, with engraved leather bindings, marbleized end papers, and gorgeous hand-colored plates and lithographs. This is one place where it's perfectly acceptable to judge a book by its cover, though Macaluso pays equal heed to what's inside. The ideal book is a work of art twice.

"The age of the book is not the most significant factor," Macaluso declares. "What is the content? Is it a good book? Is the subject noteworthy? Did it contribute to our culture? And is it still being read?" Some books in the shop are as cheap as $15. Some are as dear as $7,000. Many are priced between $100 and $1,000.

His customers are scholars, professors, libraries and museums, collectors, and ordinary folks who pop in on a whim while strolling the charming streets of historic and resurgent Kennett Square.

"They are people who not only read but also buy books intending to keep them," says Macaluso, who has been in the bookselling business for 35 years, 19 at his present location.

"He's one of the nicest resources in Kennett Square," says Janet Shepherd, 83, who has patronized Thomas Macaluso Rare & Fine Books for years. "He is able to identify the book quickly, he delivers it to the door, and the price is always moderate."

Many rare book dealers are shuttering their stores these days and plying their trade exclusively via the Internet, Macaluso says. While his online business is growing - he has customers in every state and 38 foreign countries - the notion of going all-digital provokes a vehement Churchillian reply: "Never!"

"My customers want to see, feel and smell the books. They like to search the shelves. It's much more satisfying than looking at lists online."

Half the fun is the chance discovery, the serendipitous surprise.

"Every once in a while, I'll be sitting here when customers are browsing and I'll hear an 'Oooooo!' That gives me a thrill. It's an affirmation of my skill in deciding what books to buy."

One day a car pulled up to the stoplight outside his shop. An old woman in the backseat noticed his sign and directed the driver to pull over and park. She walked in and asked: "Do you have a small, blue paperback Mother Goose published by Metropolitan Life in 1911?"

Macaluso did indeed.

So ecstatic was she, Macaluso recalls, that "she literally burst into tears."

Macaluso's stock is eclectic and catholic - hunting and fishing, medicine and science, art and archaeology, religion and philosophy, histories of all sorts, children's books, nautical books, classics illustrated by the likes of N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. He also sells maps, prints and engravings and repairs and binds books. It is not a solo operation. At 75, he welcomes help, which is ably supplied by his wife, Brenda, and daughter-in-law, Jessica Peterson.

Had Wyeth and Macaluso met, the great Chadds Ford illustrator would have insisted he sit for a portrait. One could imagine the painter purloining his features to give flesh to a Robert Louis Stevenson character.

Macaluso's weathered face is framed by a white beard. His long, white hair is pulled back in a colonial ponytail, and his insurrectionary eyebrows have defied pruning, seemingly for decades.

His manner is that of a professor of English literature, which he taught for more than three decades at various colleges. Erudite and entertaining, he speaks in precise sentences that obey logic and grammar.

Over the years, Macaluso has handled his share of treasures - the 1616 first edition of George Chapman's translation of The Whole Works of Homer (which inspired the famous sonnet by John Keats "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer"); a first edition of Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; a first edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden; and a first edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

There is a first edition of Men Without Women, a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, with an inscription by the author to Sylvia Beach, founder and owner of Shakespeare & Co., the Parisian bookstore that was popular with the expatriate literary crowd.

Macaluso buys very few books at auctions or from other dealers. Nearly all of his books come directly from owners and estates when people move, downsize or die.

A few years back, a factory worker dropped off a box of old books he'd found next to a paper-recycling bin in town. In the box was an 1866 edition of The Story of Kennett, a historical novel by Bayard Taylor, inscribed by the author. A local lad, Taylor was a journalist, poet, adventurer and world traveler who covered the California gold rush for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, translated Goethe's Faust into English, and accompanied Commodore Perry to Japan.

The book, rescued by Macaluso, now resides in Kennett Square's library, which is named in Taylor's memory.

"I sometimes think of myself as a conservator," says Macaluso, reflecting on that happy incident. "If it were not for people like me, a great part of our culture might be thrown away."