These old books

MCMINNVILLE — Phillip J. Pirages sells books from his home office off a country road beyond McMinnville. It's not a high-traffic location, but then again you're unlikely to be his customer unless you have several thousand dollars — maybe tens of thousands of dollars — to spend.

Pirages is one of the nation's top dealers of antiquarian books — books published before 1800. He also specializes in books with fine bindings and early books about science.

It's a business with high risk and high stakes. Pirages has been so successful that he has had to come up with a plan for giving money away.

Pirages' kingdom is a hilltop with 4,000 square feet evenly split between living space and office quarters. There, he and four staffers buy, research, sell and ship from a stock of about 2,500 volumes.

The bright, calm space resembles a museum or library more than bookstore. Business takes place mostly by phone, mail and Internet; visits require an appointment.

Pirages (rhymes with "courageous," he quips) looks far younger than his 68 years, perhaps due to workouts with the automatic ping-pong server in the shipping room. He's dressed casually in sweater, open-collar shirt and khakis.

His business model: "We buy stuff no one else has; stuff that is unique or nearly unique."

And oh, what stuff it is:

  • A leaf from a 14th century choir book, with a hand-drawn illustration of Christ rising into heaven inside the initial "P." Price: $9,500.
  • An illuminated 15th century Book of Hours, a devotional book for private prayer, whose margins are a riot of intertwined flowers and animals. Price: confidential.
  • A modern volume of Wordsworth poems, hand written and illuminated in medieval style. Price: $35,000.

It takes a good story to propel a less-than-rare book into his inventory. For instance, "Anecdotes Antient and Modern," 1790, made the cut because its bookplate documents the former owner: Ernest Aldrich Simpson, whom Wallis Simpson spurned to marry the Duke of Windsor.

"Someone will buy it for that bookplate," says Pirages, who priced the book at $750.

Pirages grew up in the Midwest. He was at the University of Michigan, working on his dissertation for a Ph.D. in English literature, when he had what he calls "a life-changing experience" in 1976.

Searching for used furniture at a garage sale, he detoured to a pile of old books. One was a 17th century architectural text. The owner wanted $45, which he couldn't afford; she took $35.

Once home, he grew curious about the book's value. Some research showed that another copy had sold for $1,000. Further research revealed the name of a potential buyer who bought the book for that price.

Pirages asked the buyer to let him know if the book was resold, and at what price. The man obliged, telling him that a few days later, he sold the volume for $3,000.

"That was the moment I decided I wanted to be a bookseller," says Pirages.

For years, the operation was a part-time one, supported by Pirages' teaching jobs at Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. He bought old books and stored them in his basement; his ping-pong table doubled as his desk.

Meanwhile, he fell in love with (and eventually married) Ellen Summerfield, who was teaching German and working in international studies. (He begs off from relating the full story, explaining that it will require music and considerable time.)

After Linfield College hired Summerfield to direct its own international studies program, Pirages followed her to McMinnville in 1984. There he made the transition to full-time bookseller.

Although Pirages holds ancient Bibles and devotional books daily, he is not a particularly religious man himself. He relies on a devout Catholic friend to help explain the meaning of saints and symbols.

Nor is he a voracious reader. "It's embarrassing," he says. "I read books about books, and I'm an avid sports fan, but I read slowly. When you are self-employed, there is always work to be done."

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