Editorial: The five-floor gift that Thomas Baldwin gave us
By Richard Gaw
There are, living among us, a coalition of citizens commonly known as Country Gentlemen.
From Monday through Friday, they are likely sequestered in the cornfield maze of corporate life, but you see them mostly on the weekends, whether on Saturday morning errand chases to hardware stores, or at Sunday morning faith service, where they are content to inhale the rich brine of tranquility that their faith brings them.
They are often seen driving along the interlock of Chester County's most beautiful roadways, to old places that date back in our county's history like precious heirlooms.
They are well traveled, well informed and well educated, and they hold these blessings the way a farmer holds the reigns of a plough, softly, row upon row.
Though seen mostly in the company of men, they display every lost manner of kindness and respect when speaking to women.
They own their politics but keep them tucked in a side pocket of their pants, rather than on their sleeve.
They are fine dressers but are happiest when a formal weekday shirt is fashioned into a casual weekend look.
By choice, they reveal little of their interior book, preferring instead to give the light of attention – and time -- to others.
The roadmap of their countenance remains permanently fixed at slight amusement, as if waiting for the punchline of a joke.
They do not run. They glide.
These men, all north of a certain age, are a part of a vanishing generation still drawn to the tactile feel of simplicity – the steely contours of a garden tool; the feel and the smell of cut wood; the sweet pungency of an occasional whiskey; and the earthy perfume soil scent that rises from the pages of a book – a bound one, not an electronic one – that they love to lift up and breathe in.
In many ways, Thomas M. Baldwin, Sr., who died on June 8 at the age of 80, was one of these country gentlemen.
As the long-time owner of Baldwin's Book Barn in West Chester, his business served as the big top of conversation, and a curiosity shop of endless nooks and crannies that were not always easy to get to, but once there, revealed themselves like gently turned pages. Essentially, Baldwin was the keeper of the kingdom, the man with the keys that unlocked the doors to a five-floor, endless bounty of discovery.
For some who visit the glorious old barn on Route 100 south of West Chester, their reason for being there is specific; they want to find a first edition, or maybe they are knee-deep in an effort to know more about the history of the Revolutionary War, or everything there is to know about falconry, or the Wyeths, or the Philadelphia Athletics.
For others who visit Baldwin’s Book Barn, they arrive simply to add it proudly to their goal to visit every indelible landmark in this region. Often, they do not know what the power of browsing will reveal to them, but an hour later, they leave with an armful of books that they remember from their childhood, and when they get home and open them up, they are seven again, taken back to their past.
Whatever the purpose of our visits, there is a unified understanding among all of us that believes Baldwin’s Book Barn is a swirling and dizzying puzzle of chaotic alchemy, intentionally created by Baldwin himself and modeled for people, like him, who wish to spend time with their curiosity and honor the slow burn of what great writing can do.
It is for this general reason that we do not often find country gentlemen browsing through books at national chain stores, just as we do not often see them turning the pages of a novel by a tap of the finger. Thomas Baldwin believed that books were meant to be the conduits to our life’s compelling story, as companions to our restless desire to know more and accept more – and in that journey, he also believed that we need to take the time to browse about and treasure what we may find.