Shelf Life

Shelf LifeShelf Life

I t’s a gloomy day when a friend and I pull into Whitlock’s Book Barn, just fifteen minutes outside of New Haven in rustic Bethany, CT. The skies are cloudy and gray, and the rain is heavy, blurring the windshield—perfect conditions for spending a day inside a cozy used bookstore, especially one with so much character.

Gilbert Whitlock opened Whitlock Farm Booksellers in 1948. He had indeed been a farmer, but that was no longer a practical livelihood to pursue in Connecticut. Thoughtfully, he did the unthinkable: he turned his farm buildings into book barns.

Much of Whitlock’s stock comes from buying large collections of books, and it ranges from quirky, old rarities to contemporary used novels. Mr. Whitlock ran the store right up until a week before he died, at 88 years old, in 2004.

Today, 25-year-old Basie Gitlin is at the helm, having worked at the store since he was 12 years old. Following Mr. Whitlock’s passing, and only a few years after his start, “It became apparent that even though I was 15 at the time, I was probably getting to be the most knowledgeable person there, so I stepped into the role of being the rare book expert,” Gitlin says.

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Gitlin made his first house call when he was 18, and then continued to research and buy rare books for the barn throughout the rest of high school and college, too, studying nearby at Yale. During that time, he also worked at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and William Reese Company, a high-end rare book dealer in town.

Besides Gitlin, there are several other employees at the barn during the week, including bookkeeper Audrey White, who’s worked at Whitlock’s since 1977; Elaine Sargeant, a feisty woman who’s worked there since 1984 and hired Gitlin in the first place; and Meg Turner, the shop manager.

You’ll want to set aside as much time as you can when planning your visit, because it’s a place to wander and wonder about for hours. The store consists of two barn buildings, painted a deep red color. On both barns, a sign above the door encourages each visitor to “Set Yourself Free.” The lower barn is long and narrow, originally intended to house turkeys. Now it houses pricier books and special categories, like Yale- and New Haven-related collections, old postcards and maps. Books and papers are stacked anywhere there is open space. The floor in this building is uneven, evidence of the barn’s age and its original, unfussy purpose. It’s a building with no foundation, built directly on top of the dirt, and it hasn’t ever been renovated. Faded oriental rugs and green carpet cover the floor. There are shelves and shelves of old books organized by various categories indicated by colorful, handwritten signs. There is the musty smell of old paper and binding. Soothing classical music plays in the background.

But it’s not pretentious. I pick up an old, beat-up book from a table and the cover falls off. Oops. “That happens a lot,” Gitlin says, laughing.

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My friend and I spend an hour exploring the shelves and flipping through books. There are old Yale yearbooks and literary journals, a rather aged-looking complete set of The Atlantic from 1873 and pretty copies of classics like Don Quixote.

In the other barn, which is much larger, all books are under five dollars. The second floor holds collections of old maps and prints. The barn is quiet, and the carpet is a faded red. While admiring a battered collection of Pearl S. Buck’s novels, I can hear the rain tapping against the low roof.

I purchase the Pearl S. Buck novels, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov with a dangling cover decorated in faded gold leafing and a yellowed pamphlet about Wordsworth, all for about ten dollars. My friend takes home some more expensive books about the history of Yale. We are rung up on an old-fashioned cash register that dings.

Despite the rise of ebooks, Gitlin doesn’t think physical books will lose their value. Just the opposite. “This sort of specialized book market, I think, is only getting stronger,” Gitlin says. “The fact that something’s tactile, that something’s well-designed, that something’s beautifully illustrated or well-reproduced, in a funny way, now matters more than it used to.”

Whitlock’s Book Barn
20 Sperry Rd, Bethany (map)
Wed-Sun 10am-5pm
(203) 393-1240

Written and photographed by Claire Zhang.

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Claire Zhang is an English major at Yale University, where she is the editor-in-chief of Vita Bella Magazine. She has written for a number of other campus publications including the Yale Herald, the Yale Daily News and Flourish. She has also written for Tea Leaf Nation. In her free time, Claire likes to read and dance.

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