CAPE ELIZABETH — If books are treasures, as Peggy and Ogden Williams say, their home just off Shore Road is a gold mine.
Centuries-old books on medicine, history, travel and religion overflow shelves in the living room, office and a built-in shelf at the top of the stairs. Walking through the halls, you can smell their sweet must.
Bedrooms for now-grown children are lined with bookshelves; unsorted stacks have been carefully pushed against basement walls; and in one basement corner is a sort of infirmary – a messy, but well-lit desk stocked with glue and tools for fixing paper, leather and cloth.
Since leaving a 20-year career as an elementary school teacher last summer to expand their home business, Pine Tree Books, Ogden Williams said he occasionally “looks out the window longingly at a neighborhood kid,” but that he’s pretty content surrounded by books.
“Everyone needs to make an about-face every once in a while and question what you’re doing,” his wife, Peggy, said. When Williams found that his obsession for working with children was slipping toward one working with books, the pair said they knew it was time to make their business a full-time endeavor.
And Williams wants the world to know he’s not just retired.
“We’re working like the devil in here,” he said, adding that he’s often “reticent to go out and weed,” afraid that neighbors will think, “oh, look at him, fiddling around.” In reality, between moving and packing books all day, “we have to do stretches!” he said.
The couple started their business buying and selling fine, antiquarian and out-of-print books in 2001 as a part-time gig after Williams discovered the world of online book sales.
After taking a class at the University of Southern Maine, he felt like the school book store wasn’t going to pay enough to buy back his books, so he turned to the Web. Combining his discovery of the Internet’s business opportunities with a love of books, Pine Tree Books seemed only natural, he said.
The couple have since taken classes on antiquarian books, and found their niche with 1800s non-fiction, though they carry other books as well. In 2008, they made it their full-time jobs, and this spring launched their Web site.
Williams said the hardest part about the business is that he simply can’t read everything that comes through his door. “You can’t open a book from the 16-, 17-, 1800s and not find it fascinating,” he said.
At one point, Peggy Williams said, they had hundreds of books written in Yiddish, and later found themselves with piles of theology, art and photography texts. “It’s whatever you happen into,” she said, “becoming semi-experts in each (field) is exciting.”
Books are acquired at auctions, from collectors, from people cleaning out their attics, looking to downsize, or making more space on their shelves. Sometimes the couple will visit a family looking to sell a collection of thousands, sometimes they find they must tell people their old books just aren’t worth much. Other times, they make a real find.
But every time, they’re proud to be let in the door. “It’s sacred to be invited into someone’s home to look at their books. Their books are a part of them,” Peggy Willams said.
Part of the job, she added, is counseling people having a hard time parting with their collections.
The books are then organized throughout the Williams’ home and are sold online, at book shows and through word of mouth – one repeat customer, Ogden Williams explained, collects books about insane asylums. When he came across an obscure text that included a chapter about taking a group of children to visit an asylum, he gave her a call.
“It’s satisfying,” he said, “connecting people with books they didn’t necessarily know existed.”
While they’re sorry to hear about booksellers shutting down their shops in this economy, the Williamses said they feel like they’re doing pretty well in spite of it. Since they went full-time, they said, they’ve grown a lot better at marketing and selling their books, which they said might be counteracting any decline in the market itself.
With few expenses other than books and bubble-wrap, with kids out of the house and other life expenses “not what they were,” they’re satisfied with the business and the variety of it all.
“With the amount of books there are, you could spend an eternity learning about books, authors,” Ogden Williams said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.