Not too long ago, Lynne Owens got a phone call from a woman at the Department of Rehabilitation, wanting to know what was involved in becoming a dealer of fine books. A client had expressed interest, the woman told her.
Owens stifled a laugh. "I said, 'Well, I've been collecting books for 30 years, I have a master's degree in literature, my husband has a degree in philosophy and reads Latin and Greek, we both read French and Spanish, and on top of that we have a few thousand reference books,' " Owens recalled.
The woman never called back.
As owners of Thorn Books and Bindery in Moorpark, the only Ventura County bookstore that is a member of the prestigious Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. of America, Jim and Lynne Owens have devoted years to obtaining rare, obscure, old or otherwise difficult-to-find books.
They have traveled to England and Scotland to hunt for books on early English history, and to antiquarian book fairs nationwide for texts about the early American West. They have pored over boxes at estate sales. Even thrift stores and garage sales have been known to turn up an elusive title or two.
The easiest method of all, of course, is the book seeking them out.
"People walk in off the street all the time with a pile of books, and sometimes you get lucky," Lynne said. "You find something in wonderful condition, or a book you know will be great in a certain shelf. On the other hand," she added, "sometimes they are offended that I won't pay more for something they think is valuable."
Since the average shelf life of a book at the store is four years, determining the value of a book--as well as its demand--is vital.
Reference books and auction records can in some cases provide a guide for dealers, said Jim, but other times the variables become more complicated. A book's subject matter, its age and condition may be factors in one case, while the previous owner--such as an otherwise nondescript text once owned by Benjamin Franklin--may be the determining factor in another.
"There really is no set rule for what is a valuable book," said Jim, an Agoura Hills corporate attorney and skilled bookbinder who has restored many of the older texts in the couple's store. "The key, though, is desirability. It can be the best book ever produced and 300 years old, but if no one cares about it, it doesn't matter."
So what do people care about? According to Lynne, California history is ever-popular, as is any book on cowboys or American Indians. Classics and collections take up one area of the store, and another is devoted entirely to early English history. Texts in Greek and Latin--favorites of Jim's--take up another shelf.
Of course, for a couple accustomed to many of history's great authors--and their first editions--reading mass-produced, modern books no longer holds much appeal.
Jim complains of the poorly bound pages and boring type of books published today, and Lynne misses the "tactile experience" of curling up with a hand-bound book in leather and hand-set type.
"I used to look at books only from the aspect of content, and that the physical book was part of the reading experience," said Jim, once an avid collector of paperbacks. "If it's leather-bound, it becomes a sensory experience to read. But now, it's truly gotten to the point where I dread having to read a paperback."
For Lynne, owning the store means being constantly surrounded by literature that has stood the test of time.
"We're both very interested to find out what will happen to writers like Danielle Steele and Stephen King 20 years from now," she said. "I don't know. But I suspect we'll think they're not as hot as we thought."