Bound by Life
David Brown’s penchant for collecting old books has turned into a lifelong addiction, but his wife Ellen still thinks he’s a rare find
In his book A Gentle Madness, Nicholas Basbanes discusses how over time, book collectors can become so obsessed with their finds that this “gentle madness” becomes engrained into their psyche, causing them to ascend to a new tier of bibliomania.
At 76, David Brown exudes every characteristic of the gentle madness that Basbanes has coined for bibliophiles. With paper white hair meticulously parted to one side, David is a composed, well-mannered gentleman who often gets a chuckle out of his propensity to find the rarest editions of the most obscure titles.
A Gentle Madness is one of David’s favorite reads of the past decade. It was given to him as a gift several years ago and is now somehow lost amidst the thousands of novels stacked against the walls of the Old Tampa Book Company, a quaint shop in downtown Tampa that David owns with his wife, Ellen.
Together David and Ellen, 75, peruse the world for books that might pique their interest or the interest of other collectors. They’re books that most people would simply pass over, but to David they’re gems that represent an era once forgotten, bound pieces of history that caught his eye and will more than likely ignite the curiosity of other enthusiasts.
“He has a curious mind,” Ellen says. “Unusual things attract him.”
Chapter one of this bookman’s tale takes place in upstate New York during the 50s. David, then a student at Cornell University, was a handsome young man who worked in a cloak room and accumulated books on classic sports cars on the side. Through mutual friends he met and fell in love with an artsy girl from the Catskill Mountains. Her name was Ellen, “El” for short. The two wed after college and spent more than 25 years in Rochester until Xerox, David’s employer, eliminated his department.
It was the best thing that ever happened to him. By then middle-aged, the couple had a chance to start over and write their own legacy. There was never a doubt how David wanted his story to go on. The 3,500 books that he had amassed over the years would help him launch his own bookstore in Tampa, a city they connected with while on vacation.
Ellen was mystified: “I couldn’t believe he was going to sell them.”
There’s a method to David’s gentle madness. As the owner of a bookstore, he can collect thousands of titles without confining his interests to certain topics. He doesn’t keep “the good stuff” at home; he wants to sell those. At the Old Tampa Book Company, you’ll find thousands of titles that David handpicked himself. There’s a first edition of The Prince by Machiavelli a signed Andy Warhol book and other titles from centuries ago that are valued in the thousands today.
“The good books, the valuable ones, support the store,” Ellen says. “They need to support it because David has this obsession. If he keeps it at home, it won’t sell.”
David’s personal collection is limited thanks to Ellen’s strict two-bookcase policy. One case holds her extensive collection of cookbooks, while the other has David’s art books on the primitive Asmat tribe of New Guinea, which he first encountered at an exhibit featured in Ellen’s former Rochester gallery.
“The reason I like collecting in this area is because it’s very narrow,” David says. “Fewer than 500 books have ever been written about this tribe.”
That’s the beauty of book collecting. While one person might see a title as random and undesirable, another sees a treasure. Sometimes for David, it’s the name on the dust jacket or the title that sets him off. Other times it’s the condition and feel of a novel published and bound centuries ago that lets him know a book is special.
David says he has reached a point in his life where he enjoys any book, regardless of its title. Whether he’s rifling through a box of old books that someone left in his possession or thumbing a classic he has read a dozen times before, every collection of pages is a new experience. It is David’s curious addiction has changed the course of his and Ellen’s lives, his gentle madness that has written their story.
Time to Rebind
St. Petersburg studio is Tampa Bay’s only traditional hand bindery
If you’re looking for a place to restore your rare and antiquarian books, there’s literally only one choice in Tampa Bay: Griffin Book Binding. Originally from Wales, Owner David Barry has more than 30 years of bindery experience. He started his apprenticeship at just 16 years old and left for the United States in 1993, where he established his first bindery studio in Los Angeles. Four years ago, Barry opened Griffin Book Binding at a Salt Creek Artworks studio in downtown St. Petersburg and has quickly established himself as a skilled source for traditional hand bindery.
David and Ellen Brown of the Old Tampa Book Company trust Barry to restore and repair all of their rare collectables, giving the books some much-needed TLC while increasing the resale value. From family bibles and historic first editions to archival clamshell boxes and custom covers, Barry has international clientele that includes book dealers, collectors, libraries, publishers and those who just need a sentimental heirloom mended.
He’s available Monday-Friday from 7am to 2pm by appointment only. Prices are set on a project-by-project basis but Barry is happy to provide estimates. He can be reached at 727.254.7962 or online at griffinbookbinding.com.