"When we talk about our travels, people say, 'How exciting!' " Lynne Owens said. "I say, 'How dirty, grubby and worn out we are!' "
Lynne and her husband James, who run a small antiquarian bookshop in Moorpark, travel to Europe each year seeking old books, especially ones printed before 1820 or related to English history and literature.
On one such trip, the Owenses found themselves in a dark, wet, bone-chilling Welsh basement, searching through two pallets of 16th- and 17th-Century folio-sized books with only a flashlight.
James Owens recalled looking through the books: "Everything was falling apart. We did not know if this stuff would cost a fortune because there were no prices listed."
The Owenses came home with "Historia Ecclesiastica Veteris," a 1748 Latin ecclesiastical church history beginning with Henry VIII's break with the Roman Catholic Church and including information about the Reformation and Martin Luther.
The nine-volume set is in a locked cabinet with other antique books such as the 1692 "Chronicon Saxonum," a history of Britain written in Latin and Anglo-Saxon, both languages easily translated by James Owens.
American, British Authors
Although those books may not fit the taste of most people, the shop, called Thorn Books, also carries rare and used books by such diverse authors as Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, John Muir and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"When we started on a mail-order basis several years ago," Lynne Owens said, "we had read all the books we were selling and owned what we strictly wanted ourselves.
"But when we opened the shop a year ago, we realized that we had to carry what others want, particularly books about California and the West, something we did not know about or care about, but we learned fast.
"We have to have something for everyone, but we particularly love English literature and history. However, I would say that at least one of us does have a passing acquaintance with all the books here."
The something-for-everyone approach also includes maps dating from the 17th Century, Victorian valentines and framed prints removed from books--a practice that Lynne Owens terms unfortunate.
Other collectibles include 13th-Century manuscripts, miniature books, books with illustrated cloth covers and illustrated books--one bibliophile's delight is a 1928 limited edition of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" with art by famed illustrator Arthur Rackham.
Thorn Books is in the old downtown section of Moorpark, a bedroom community of 25,000 in eastern Ventura County. Although the bookstore is on a busy corner where trucks roar by headed for gravel and sand pits at the northern edge of the city, the store is tucked in the back of a large building--the site of a former poker parlor outlawed by the Moorpark City Council several years ago.
One step into its quiet interior transports the customer to another era, when personal libraries were very much a part of the home and reading was still by gaslight.
A comfortable leather armchair is in one corner, and well-dusted books neatly occupy the bookshelves.
Customer Rod Lang of Newbury Park called Thorn Books "very intimate."
"It gives me a feeling of an English bookshop--that musty book odor. There's not a lot of things to distract you. One can take the time to browse. It's different from the bookstores in Los Angeles that carry antiquarian books, where they hurry you along and act nervous."
Book collecting is moving into the realm of art collecting. Fine art illustrations removed from books are sold--a plate from "The Birds of Australia" sold in June for $8,250 at Sotheby's in New York. And Ralph Sipper, at his store, Joseph the Provider/Books of Santa Barbara, recently sold several first editions of "The Great Gatsby" for $10,000 with their dust jackets. (The same book without a dust jacket might have gone for only several hundred dollars.)
Doug Dutton, owner of the venerable Dutton's Books in Brentwood, said rare and antique books represent a growing market.
"As the art market gets crazier and more out of line with the nouveau riche and the tres riche , one area where you can still get bona fide antiques at affordable prices is used and rare books," Dutton said.
The term affordable depends on the book. At Thorn Books, a customer can pick up a used book for $5 or a rare, old book for more than $2,000, such as the "Annals of the Crown of Aragon," which the Owenses say represents the first serious history of Spain, written in 1610. The five-volume history gives attention to the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and the discovery of the West Indies by Columbus.
"We found it in Edinburgh, Scotland, and had a pretty good idea looking at it what it was worth," Lynne said, pointing out that the volumes are in their original binding.
Pricing a rare book can be a hard call. The Owenses have shelves of reference books to help with pricing, and often it can take days to correctly price a rare or antique book. "The key in this business is to know what reference books to use. We have a good representation, but we are trying to enhance it. When we have a first edition, we ask a fair price. We don't try to pawn off something on someone as not being authentic. First, however, we must be educated ourselves," James Owens said.
Such variables as the binding, the number of copies printed and the age of the book must be considered. And books printed before World War II and movable type have a category termed "first edition, first state" as opposed to "first edition."
First edition, first state is what the book looked like until the first minor change was made--"when the printer dropped a tray of type and did not put it back together as it was," Lynne Owens said. "Often we don't know what happened, but something changed the book. An example is 'Robinson Crusoe,' which is a bibliographer's nightmare. We try to establish the correct order of various changes in the early issues, but these books are old enough that the printer's information is lost."
Donald Beswick, a Camarillo bookbinder and friend of the Owenses, said he sent a customer to Thorn Books who thought that he had a first edition of "Huckleberry Finn."
The Owenses, Beswick said, "went to endless trouble to find out if the book was worth anything," eventually proving that it was indeed a first edition.
For Lynne and James Owens, Thorn Books represents not only their love for antique books but their affection for the antiquarian bookshop trade.
"When someone who has never bought a fine book stumbles into the store and finds a book that means something to him--what happens in that process is the development of a new customer for every other bookshop that he stumbles into," Lynne Owens said.