The keeper of the kingdom
● By J. Chambless
Thomas Baldwin, Sr. was the long-time owner of Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester. (Photo courtesy of Gene Pisasale)
By Richard L. 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.
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 are not always easy to get to, but once there, reveal 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.
The first time I met Tom Baldwin in the early 1990s, he was sitting beside the bookstore’s famous pot-bellied stove, and wearing winter wear that seemed like it had been ripped from the pages of a famous clothing outlet in Freeport, Maine.
It was my first visit to Baldwin’s Book Barn, and by the time I had entered the main room at the bookstore’s entry, my legs were exhausted from maneuvering my way up and down narrow steps, and my head was spinning from book overload.
Baldwin was involved in conversation with a few other men that could best be described as desultory, and the stove was emitting enough heat to warm the stone walls of a room on a winter’s day. Noticing me, Baldwin introduced himself to me by way of a firm handshake and a look at the spines of the books I was about to take home. I placed the books I was purchasing on the front counter.
Although the names of the authors whose books I was buying now escape me, Baldwin seemed to know a bit about each one. A few months later, I arrived at the store to find a piglet wandering happily around the main room, and in nearly every subsequent visit I made, I was introduced to dogs whose names, curiously, all began with the letter ‘B.’
Often, I was joined in my book search by curious and quiet cats, who skeptically looked down the aisles of bookshelves at me, as if to say, “The novel you have in your hands right now is entirely overrated. Save your money.”
Although it was my intention to do so on every visit I made to the bookstore, I never got to know Tom Baldwin, largely due to the fact that towards the latter part of his life, he and his wife Kathy spent most of the year at their home in Florida. My curiosity about the bespectacled and well-dressed man, however, has never waned, and in reading about him and speaking with those who knew him best, I began to cobble together a portrait of the man and his bookstore.
Baldwin’s father William founded the business in 1946, and for the next several years, he and his wife ran the bookselling business, first at Stroud’s Mill and later at the 1820s barn. When William became ill, Tom’s mother asked her son if Tom would be interested in taking over the business. He did so, and never left.
“Tom adored people,” Kathy said from her home in Florida. “Selling books is a rewarding business for someone who enjoys people, because those who have a passion for books are generally kind and loving individuals. Tom was totally passionate about whatever he was involved in for his entire life, and I think his passion for the Book Barn stems from the fact that he inherited it from his mother and father. He truly wanted to see Baldwin’s Book Barn become and remain a part of Chester County history.”
Fred Dannaway began working at the bookstore since 2001, soon after he retired from a 35-year career as a teacher in Delaware.
“Tom had a manner about him, and a way of speaking and carrying himself, that people liked,” he said. “He was always well-dressed and well-mannered. He would introduce himself to customers, and I can remember numerous occasions when that introduction and initial conversation would last for the next three hours in his office.”
Carol Rausch began at Baldwin’s Book Barn on April 29, 2010 – her birthday.
“Tom Baldwin saved my life,” she said. “When I came here to ask if I could volunteer, I had been diagnosed with Stage Three colon cancer. Tom asked an employee, ‘Can she walk up and down those steps?’ When he was told that I looked like the kind of person who could do that, he said, ‘Well, I’ll hire her then.’
“For me, Baldwin’s Book Barn has been about good health and happiness.”
In 2010, Baldwin briefly put the business up for sale, but eventually balked at the idea. Dannaway remembered a ‘For Sale’ sign that was placed at the end of the driveway. It remained there for three days, he said.
“Tom would always say to me that it was his duty to keep going what his father started,” Dannaway said. “He told me that it would take something drastic to make him give this up, given all that Tom knew about what his father put into it.”
Since then, Baldwin’s Book Barn has outlasted numerous chain bookstores, and it remains competitive with nationally-known stores that have become more known for their ability to whip up a mocha latte than for tracking down a limited edition novel by a first-time author.
“Tom used to tell me that when all of the other bookstores are long gone, that he would remain the last man standing,” Rausch said.
For many who visit Baldwin’s Book Barn, they arrive simply to experience the sensation of discovery, or inhale the intoxicating scent of an old book pressed up against one’s face during a browsing jag, and an hour later, discover that their browsing has led to the purchase of books that introduce them to the Revolutionary War, or everything there is to know about falconry, or the Wyeths or the history of Chester County.
Sometimes, it takes them back to their childhood.
In the early fall of 1997, I took my parents to Baldwin’s Book Barn, and while my father spent his time in a section of the bookstore devoted entirely to “Military,” I searched for my mother among the dozens of stacks and shelves. Eventually, I found her in the children’s book room – first floor, first right – running her fingers over the spines of hundreds of books.
“These books remind me of my childhood,” she told me. “It’s almost like I’m seven again. What a beautiful bookstore this is.”
She died the following February.
The visit to Baldwin’s Book Barn with my parents that day was not the last time I was in the presence of my mother, but rather than remember my visits to a cold and sterile hospital room, I have chosen that day at Baldwin’s Book Barn as my lasting image of her.
“In many ways, I’ve spent my entire life there,” Kathy said. “When I think of the Book Barn, I think of feeling very safe. I think about the many fascinating people we met who visited frequently. It was just a beautiful way of life. I am very blessed to have experienced that, because it is a very unique place.”
“What this place does is activate your senses,” Rausch said. “You see the books. You smell the stove, and you are taken back in time. Twenty-five thousand square feet. Three hundred thousand books. Nobody else has a bookstore like this in the entire world.”
Whatever the purpose of our visits have been over the years to this stone building, 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 William and Tom Baldwin and modeled for people, like them, 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.
Tom Baldwin – the Country Gentleman -- believed that books were meant to be the conduits to our life’s compelling story, and to serve as companions to our restless desire to know more and accept more. In the space of that journey, he also believed that we need to use that time to browse about and treasure what we may find.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.