When it comes to head-scratching business decisions in this day and age, opening a storefront bookstore might take the cake. After all, few vestiges of our analog past have suffered as much digital disruption as the book business. Tangible books—the kind you can hold in your hand— have become an endangered species, though not yet as rare as the now-closed retailers that used to sell them.
That is certainly true for those concerned only with the story the words in the book have to tell. But there is another breed of book lover, those who are concerned with the story the physical book itself can tell; those who love books for their intrinsic value as physical objects.
Most typically such appreciation is for rare and/or first-edition tomes, and fortunately for Pasadenans who share such a refined interest, Dan Whitmore has opened Whitmore Rare Books on the corner of Union and Raymond.
Beginning originally out of his home, Whitmore’s passion and knack for locating significant and sought-after books of high quality led him to open a small, second-story space a few blocks from where the store is now. Even in that difficult-to-locate spot, however, his business continued to improve, and within a couple of years Whitmore felt an upgrade was in order.
Although friends and family thought opening an expanded storefront bookstore was more than a little crazy, Whitmore says the move has been a boon. “Having a street-front presence so people can drive by, look in the windows, and know that we are here, doing a higher-end type of a bookshop, has been a real asset,” he says. “The move over and remodel took a bit of a toll, but we’re finishing up a strong year.”
Looking around the handsome, well-lit space designed by Ana Henton, also responsible locally for the interiors at Intelligentsia and Silverlake Wine, you can understand Whitmore’s decision. “Working from home was a good first step but it wasn’t the end goal,” he says. “For the shop, I think I wanted to create something that was more of a … higher-end environment where the books are showcased to their best possible effect.”
In that regard he definitely succeeds. On the shelves you’ll find first editions of modern literature like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, popular fiction like Steven King’s The Shining,
poetry such as T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats), and even children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the original Harry Potter, of which only 500 hard-cover first editions were printed. Some of Whitmore’s rarest books are his oldest, and include a first edition of Imitatio Christi (Imitation of Christ) by Thomas à Kempis, from 1473, 20 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, and a second-edition Complete Works of William Shakespeare from 1632 (currently on display in London).
The internet may have profoundly disrupted the book business, but words made out of electricity can never replace the magical effect of actually holding an old and important work of literature in your own hand, and imbibing its spirit as you read the words on a page. Dan Whitmore has made it his mission to ensure such opportunities never disappear.
Photos: Whitmore’s Rare Books/Paul Mowry