A Bibliophile’s Paradise

How is a bibliophile made? How is it that a seemingly reasonable person decides to surround himself/herself with books, beautiful books that clutter whatever space is available as though it’s reasonable to hoard books because of, what really? That books might vanish like extinct birds or that they need good homes and no one will care for them; or that there aren’t enough well-heeled institutions, like the Huntington Library, that house fantastically rare books to visit? No, it’s more than that. To have that particular book of your desire is motivation enough to spend lavishly to own a literary art object

I am a bibliophile, though constrained by having a smallish house with children.  (Plans are afoot for an office in the backyard that will house a library.) I lust for books that I don’t have the time to read, I haunt library book sales hoping beyond reason that I’ll come across a signed first edition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with a beautiful dust jacket. The fact is, every good thing in my life has come from my passion for reading — my children, my wife, my house, my damn dog…all of it.  I owe everything to the writing and reading gods.

I live in Pasadena because it’s a writers’ town with many wonderful writers, and writers as a species are drawn to bookstores. I make my Wednesday rounds visiting many of them. I stop by Century Books on Green Street, then walk up to Colorado Boulevard for a stop at Book Alley to browse its lush and eclectic offerings, then over to Comics Factory to buy a few comics and chat with my friends; then from there I’m on to Vroman’s Bookstore, California’s oldest bookstore, to write at Jones Coffee.

Life in Pasadena has been great for a bibliophile, but then life recently became exponentially better: When driving in Old Pasadena, I noticed a new bookstore under construction on Union Street.  I was delighted but skeptical, fearing that somehow I misread the signage. Until then I didn’t believe our city could support another bookstore, but that was my lack of imagination. Even I had begun to succumb to the idea that a passion for physical books was an anachronistic fetish.

But it was true: A new bookstore that specialized in very rare books, a kind of Rolls-Royce dealership for the upscale literary devotee, was opening and my heart raced. More good luck: An assignment came my way to cover the launch of Whitmore Rare Books and I happily accepted — an early Christmas present. Soon after came an invite to the opening reception. Whitmore Rare Books is a beautiful light-filled space with bookshelves made of gorgeous woods that stretch to the ceiling.  The books hang like jewels behind glass, tantalizing bibliophiles of means and those who aren’t but might have an even greater lust for the book of their dreams.

I didn’t get a chance to spend much time talking to owner Dan Whitmore that night, so we met soon after for coffee at Intelligentsia Café near his shop. I couldn’t help doing what one does in the film capital of the world — Dan’s a handsome guy who resembles Chris Pine, has a fine sense of humor and seems well-rested for a man with a demanding business and four young boys at home. He’s a Pasadena native who completed a B.A. in economics from Middlebury College in Vermont before earning his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He and Darinka Whitmore, his wife and art director, run Whitmore Rare Books with Miranda Garno Nesler, who serves as the specialist in women’s history and works with institutional clients. She has a Ph.D. in literature and gender studies from Vanderbilt University.

Dan Whitmore is a passionate lover of books as objects of value, aesthetically as well as financially. He turned from life as a lawyer just as he was making serious lawyer money because he couldn’t see himself living the lawyer’s life; it just wasn’t for him and, as a colleague said, “If you can pay your bills you should do what you want.”  Dan knew what he wanted and that was a life in the world of rare books

Dan told me of his epiphany, that moment of awakening that revealed his life’s work. While out for a bike ride, he passed a guy on the curb selling what looked to be various kinds of garage-sale junk, but he caught a glimpse of a book that intrigued him. He stopped and saw that it was Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, one of Dan’s favorite novels. He bought it and, when he examined it later, was delighted to discover it was a first edition…a first edition that didn’t have a dust jacket and that was one of a huge print run because Hemingway was one of the world’s most popular writers at the time. That particular book wasn’t worth much but the book bug bit Dan. Working in the field of rare books would be central to his life. He earns his living understanding the market for rare books of great value, while contending with the expenses of travel, catalogs and outfitting a beautiful space to showcase wonderful and rare books. When he talks of helping to foil the theft of an extremely valuable book, he’s transported, just as when he discusses the papers of an important poet he’s been commissioned to handle. Or when he looks at a writer’s signature on a signed copy: A broken signature is a dead giveaway that that signature is forged to drive up the value of that book.

As a novelist I feel fortunate to have been paid for my books. Dan’s secondary market sales are so far removed from those of us who create books, but it’s part of the ecosystem of how books of great value are preserved. It’s certainly about money, but the commerce for rare books — the passion to own these objects that contain all the permutations of narratives of the human experience — helps to preserve them.

It comes down to this: My heart races walking into Whitmore Rare Books in a way that doesn’t happen walking into the Tesla dealer on Colorado. We’ve come so far technologically, but I’m grateful we can keep a part of our literary past with us. 

Whitmore Rare Books is located at 121 E. Union St., Pasadena. Call (626) 714-7720 or visit whitmorerarebooks.com…Jervey Tervalon is an award-winning poet, screenwriter and author of six novels, including his latest, All the Trouble You Need: A Novel (Atria Books; 2018). He lives in Altadena with his wife and two daughters.