The Capital of Annapolis

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — You won’t find any Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Jennifer Weiner novels at Back Creek Books. And not because owner Rock Toews is sold out.

They’re missing by choice from the Annapolis shop.

Nothing against best-sellers, but they’re readily available from a host of sources, Toews said.

His shop — which opened in March at a time when many bookstores have closed or are in the process of shutting down — is packed with unique volumes and other publications on subjects ranging from history and art to the maritime topics and Americana. Each is carefully chosen for rarity, content and aesthetics.

“He’s just got some interesting stuff,” said historian Jane McWilliams, “It’s gutsy, very gutsy to do this and I hope he succeeds.”

A quick glance of the tables and shelves reveals a reprint of Davy Crockett’s almanac, a treatise on Atlantic salmon fishing, a collection of Willa Cather’s works, a concise history of the Marine Corps, a 1930 biography of Benedict Arnold, and a large volume on artist Leroy Neiman.

Toews also has a pamphlet on the Annapolis budget from 1885, a letter from a solider convalescing at the hospital established at the Naval Academy during the Civil War, and even sheet music and lyrics to “Maryland, My Maryland” from 1862.

All of the items are used, save a few recent publications on local history, such as “Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History” by McWilliams. Used books are priced from $3 up to $3,000 (for a book featuring a scandalous attack on Thomas Jefferson written the year he died).

“I want there to be stuff you don’t see everywhere else,” said Toews, who lives near Back Creek in Eastport and is a married father of two children, 11 and 12.

He also wants to be bastion of the printed word, fighting the good fight against eBooks and the demise of bookstores. “It’s not a Kindle thing,” he said. “But a book is more than just the pages between the covers. If what you’re selling is information or text, you’re done. Everything I have in here, I hope, is an object of interest in its own right.”

If small bookstores would just hang on, Toews contends, they’d succeed.

So far, sales haven’t been spectacular, but he’s holding his own between in-store and Internet traffic. He’s sold used books online and from his house by appointment for about 15 years — a profession that began by locating hard-to-find books for customers when he worked at Barnes & Noble in the days before the Internet.

Ironically, some of the bookcases in his shop come from bigbox bookstores that either moved or closed.

Toews said selling books online isn’t easy and thought a shop would offer additional opportunities. As an example, he pointed to a volume on aboriginal peoples of Australia he had for sale online for a decade. Right after putting it on display at the shop, it sold.

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Prior to the book business, Toews worked as an accountant and as a mule driver for an Elk hunting outfitter in Idaho. He had plenty of time to read when he wasn’t shuttling people back and forth on hunts. He’s originally from California.

“Rock’s a good man,” said Jim Clark, an Annapolis resident who used to run a bookshop in the city and stopped by recently to purchase a collection of socialist poetry from the 1930s. “I love his store.”

This book, and many others in the shop, have typed notes on a slip of paper inside the front cover. It’s Toews way of explaining a little about the book and perhaps its provenance and why it’s important.

“It’s fun in a way to write those things, when you find out something interesting about an item no one else knows,” he said.

He’s picky not only about which books he carries, but also the decor in the shop, which is filled with antique furnishings. He even has a working rotary telephone and a portable manual typewriter.

“His shop is an added gem to Gallery Row (the name for a collection for businesses on Inner West Street where the bookstore is located),” said Katherine Burke.

She runs The Annapolis Collection Gallery and some of the artwork from her showroom is on display on the walls of the bookstore. Since it’s historically-themed, it blends nicely with the books on the shelves below.

“If you’re looking for rare books, he’s the contact in Annapolis,” Burke said. “His knowledge of history, especially Lincoln, is unsurpassed.”

Lincoln is a particular favorite of Toews, and there are plenty of books about the 16th president in the shop, as well as a booklet authored by the bookseller about Lincoln’s visit to Annapolis in February, 1865.

Toews is more than willing to discuss Lincoln, or just about any topic, and his welcoming manner attracts people to shop beyond just the books, said David Grobani, who used to run the Briarwood Bookshop on Maryland Avenue. He occasionally helps out at Back Creek.

Just the other day, as Toews talked about the shop, a man came in looking to sell two bags of books. Not all were the kind carried at the shop, but Toews went over them carefully anyway. As he sorted them into piles, another man came in to ask whether he’d be interested in some maritime books. Again, a pleasant exchange.

Asked the key to Toews business, Grobani replied: “Have you met him? He’s congenial, friendly and easy-going. Rock himself contributes to his success.”

Toews, who walks to his shop from home, would like to expand the offerings and services at the shop in coming months. This includes book repair and potentially selling items such as old maps and fine writing instruments. Back Creek is open every day of the week except Wednesday.

“What I’m trying to create here is like a market or bazaar of curiosities, nostalgia and ideas,” Toews said. “It’s a challenging business, but I’m glad I’m in it. I don’t know what I’d do.”

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http:/

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