By Thomas Swick
City & Shore Magazine
One of the most remarkable sights in South Florida is contained in a strip mall in Dania Beach.
You head west on Griffin Road and, just past The Field, on the other side of the street, you spy two book trolleys outside the entrance. The books on the trolleys sell for one or three dollars; a few of them are free for the taking. You assume that inside is more of the same: the dog-eared detritus from somebody’s attic.
Then you open the door and enter a sanctuary, a temple, a pantheon of books. Weighty volumes fill the side walls that rise to an unexpectedly high ceiling and stretch far back into the track-lighted depths. Many have leather bindings and gilt lettering and seem to be of a different world from the books outside. Down the middle of the narrow room runs a row of elegant bookcases, a few of them stacked with other bookcases. This tomed line-up is lowered in the middle by a piano – its keys recalling, inevitably, a row of books – and ornate desks that hold more books, sculptures, Tiffany-style lamps and two bright computers. Except for the technology, it is like the library of an English earl who lost his country house and had to cram everything into a small Florida store.
The nobleman in this case – in this gorgeous repository with the Dickensian name of Old Florida Book Shop – is William Chrisant, a rare and antiquarian bookseller of 40 years standing. Most of those years were spent in northern Ohio: Akron and Cleveland. About the time that region’s most famous son announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, Chrisant – with decidedly less fanfare – brought his books to Broward. Along with Bob, the almost obligatory bookstore cat.
Their presence has been so low key that many people – even former frequenters of Hittel Books in Fort Lauderdale – have remained unaware of it. While Hittel’s was a rambling, inclusive used bookstore, Old Florida Book Shop is more of a showroom for the classic and the esoteric, a place for collectors as well as for readers. For people who appreciate not only fine writing but fine craftsmanship.
“I love everything about books,” says the owner, who is president of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association. “The paper, the printing, the binding, the decoration, the gilding, the marbling. Some transcend being just books – they become works of art. Then they become something you don’t want to get rid of.”
He walks to the back room and, after moving some maps, opens a bookcase and pulls out a small antiquarian book in Italian. The fore edge appears to be painted gold but when he bends the pages the fore edge widens and three minuscule paintings of devils and angels appear on it. The leather cover of another book, The Serious Poems of Thomas Hood, contains what looks like a large keyhole in the center that frames a delicate watercolor of a nude. And then there is the volume in French on the life and work of Auguste Rodin, signed by Auguste Rodin.
Looking a bit like a venerable Steve McQueen – with reading glasses resting on the tip of his nose – Chrisant shows some of his antique maps before moving back into the main room. On the left, from this perspective, rests the fiction section, which runs into world history, which is shelved geographically. “Poland is to the left of Russia.” Chrisant pulls two books from a shelf to reveal the row hidden behind; in some places books are shelved three deep. It’s the only way to house 30,000 books in a strip mall store.
He stops at the Yamaha. “I always have pianos in my stores. I play. Sara plays,” he says, motioning to his assistant seated at a computer. “Sometimes customers will come in and play. It’s thrilling.”
Persian carpets stretch underfoot. “Why not have something beautiful on the floor?” he asks. “I figure I’m here all day, I should make it pretty for myself.”
Closer to the entrance he points out the children’s books, a genre Chrisant has great affection for because of his interest in illustration. On the wall opposite are books on art and architecture, photography and fashion, natural history and the performing arts.
“I sell virtually nothing from that side of the store,” Chrisant says with a mixture of bemusement and dismay. “I recently put poetry there to liven it up. Because poetry sells.”
The vast majority of his customers buy online. “Having an open store these days is difficult. You don’t make enough to pay the rent. If I didn’t have the Internet, I’d perish.” The few who come into the store tend to be between the ages of 20 and 50. Twentysomethings, he says, “are sometimes voracious readers. Funnily enough, these days they’re interested in philosophy.”
A man quite a bit older than the just-mentioned demographic enters the store like a contradiction. Or the exception that proves the rule.
“Starting to look good in here,” he tells Chrisant. “Smells like books. You’re a real benefit to the community.”
After he leaves, Chrisant says softly: “I didn’t pay him to do that.”
Then he himself gets philosophical.
“The book world is changing. I look at these” – his eyes sweep over the towering rows of books – “as artifacts now – something you don’t see much anymore, especially with the leather bindings. That’s why we try to buy things that have a uniqueness to them.”
Their current address makes them even more unique.
Photo by Thomas Swick: Rare and antiquarian books at Old Florida Book Shop.