Mike Riley sits behind his desk, nestled comfortably behind beautiful treasures long lost to their original owners—only for him, it’s another normal day at the book shop.
“My apartment looks very similar,” Riley says. “I have to have books around me all the time to be comfortable. It makes me feel good and that’s why I’m here seven days a week.”
Riley, 53, is the owner of Book Gallery, a unique store that opened nearly 25 years ago in Phoenix with a Mesa branch that followed not long after. The business has four employees, two at each location, not including Riley, with both stores containing little duplication in selection.
“We have about 100,000 [books] in each store and maybe only ten-percent of them are duplicated,” he says. “Phoenix has more rare and collectible books.”
From the many rare, aged gems that reside behind the front counter to the countless copies of quirky books scattered throughout the store, there’s something for everyone in the hoards of colors that the spines emit. Browsing these items requires paying an actual visit, since information on current selections can’t be found online.
Like many booksellers in the Internet Age, Riley has felt the blow in sales with e-reader devices and websites like eBay and Amazon. However, he remains one of the many bibliophiles out there who still see physical books as treasured possessions. To Riley, nothing beats the experience of going to a bookstore and browsing the shelves with wonder.
“Every subject matter has a collection of books which are acknowledged as important”
Book Gallery has an edge on other brick and mortar bookstores because it specializes in collectible items and rarities. A signed first-edition, for example, can’t be purchased on an e-reader, but only a generic version that’s the same for every user.
“Browsing on the Internet is not the same experience,” Riley says . “I don’t think it allows for that potential discovery as readily, and it’s certainly not as pleasurable as browsing the shelves of a bookstore.”
Riley’s tenacity has inspired others, like Aaron Hopkins-Johnson, 32, owner of Lawn Gnome Publishing, a small independent bookstore in downtown Phoenix.
“I felt like I was wandering into a swap meet,” Hopkins-Johnson says. “Book Gallery is located in a strip mall and the shop has big glass windows at the front with office ceiling board tiles and fluorescent lights . . . Just a few steps in the door and taking in the massive collection of books held in the oak cases proved that this was a serious bookstore.”
Before opening Lawn Gnome Publishing, Hopkins-Johnson brought in some old currency he had acquired that dated back to the 1860s. The banks and coin collectors he visited didn’t help, but then a friend told him about Riley and his experience with paper and printing identification.
“Mike is a knowledgeable resource to all book collectors and those that want to own and preserve antiquity,” Hopkins-Johnson said. “The information that Mike shared with me was a big part of why I wanted to open a bookstore.”
Many people walk into the shop simply as curious nomads looking for the comfort of a surviving local bookstore. Ronald Daum, a page at Century Library, was one of those people. He roamed the aisles with his Canon camera, eyes filled with wanderlust, looking amazed at the troves.
“It’s beautiful. I love an old store . . . where they have amazing books like this,” Daum says. “I’m glad there are still places like this in existence.”
It was Daum’s first time in the store after a friend repeatedly insisted that he pay it a visit.
“He said the store is good for the soul, and it really is,” Daum said. “Good for the soul, but bad for the wallet.”
As a dealer in literary oddities, The Book Gallery contains titles that are well over $50, with some selections reaching into the hundreds or thousands.
The most interesting specimen, Riley says, came in a box with five texts on American history that a couple had brought in. Riley noticed a tiny, leather-bound book amongst the others.
“As soon as I opened it, I knew it was a book that they hadn’t told me about,” Riley recalls .
The woman who brought the hoard in said it looked so small and insignificant compared to the rest, she didn’t think of mentioning it. Riley asked if he could take a closer look and as the woman continued to browse the store, he examined the treasure like an archaeologist would an artifact.
“This happened before computers were big,” Riley says. “[The Internet] does not have all of the information in the universe, despite what people think. If it wasn’t for my reference library, I wouldn’t have figured out these things.”
Riley consulted his reference library, which contains over 100 years of auction records. That’s how he found out, in about five minutes, that the book was written by a young author from Williamsburg named George Washington.
It was Washington’s published journal, detailing his travels in 1753 to ascertain why the French were building a fort on a piece of land in the Ohio River Valley.
“He was a very ambitious man and he decided he wanted to take this task on, which entailed almost two months of travel in the winter,” Riley say. “This little book was a record of his journey.”
After arriving back to Williamsburg, Governor Robert Dinwiddle of Virginia had copies printed. Only eight of the edition printed in Williamsburg have been discovered and it’s been 60 years since the last copy was found. Riley says he believes a Williamsburg edition would go for over $1 million today.
While the journal was also published in London, there’s no record of how many were printed. Only 50 known copies of the London edition exist today, and Riley says 8 of those reside in the British Museum— it’s the edition that ended up in Riley’s shop that day.
Another impressive title Book Gallery inherited was Sumo, a collection of monochrome photographs by German-Australian photographer Helmut Newton, which weighs over 60 pounds and comes with its own custom stand.
Riley is able to evaluate the condition as well as the subject matter of books brought to his store in a matter of seconds.
“I decide whether or not I might want it in the store by thinking about if it’s a book I’ve sold in the past successfully and have a current demand for,” Riley says . “Either that, or I notice that it’s unique or something I’ve never seen before, and I’ll often give it a try.”
The books he looks for most often, though, are classics, but not necessarily works by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.
“Every subject matter has a collection of books which are acknowledged as important,” he says.
As Riley roamed his shelves for an example, he quickly spotted Joy of Cooking in the cooking section. He also noted that, for example, classics in architecture might center around Frank Lloyd Wright, or classics in science might encompass Newton or Einstein. Riley calls these classics ‘standards,’ which he tries to have on his shelves at all times.
“[They are] books that are still meaningful even if it was written years ago, and we don’t want to restrict that to just literature,” Riley said.
“And so, I say there are three enemies of a book—water, sunlight, and librarians”
Randy Sproat, who has worked with Riley for over six years began at Book Gallery with little knowledge of collectible books or the intricate details required for the position.
“He works harder than anybody I’ve ever met,” Sproat says, speaking of Riley. “He’s a maniac for books. There’s a lot of things you can be crazy about, and it’s one of the tamer things to be crazy about, but he’s pretty driven.”
Riley’s memory, however, is the aspect that Sproat is most enthusiastic about. With so many rare books, it takes a keen eye and attention to detail to find the one small factor that denotes a first edition.
“You have to know that on page 17, 13 lines down, there’s an extra period,” Sproat explains. “It’s one thing to memorize a book you’ve seen all the time or know really well, but there’s just hundreds of books where he just knows what to look for. It’s almost spooky.”
Riley’s passion for reading has been evident since childhood. At the age of 28, Riley realized he wanted to go into the book selling business after trying to shove a new purchase on the shelves of his home, which held over 2,000 texts.
“I would say, not to denigrate it at all, but bookselling is really on the low end of what you can do with books,” Riley says. “People have taught themselves to be doctors without benefit of teachers.”
And while the subject matter of a book is arguably the most important aspect, Riley places as much fervor into the appearance. He says librarians, for example, destroy books by defacing them. But he does give them credit, because he thinks they only view them as tools.
“As a tool, they don’t see the issue with defacing the aesthetic value of the book—-it’s painful,” he asserts. “When they get rid of it, they have to put ‘discard’ in giant letters so that nobody else can enjoy reading it.”
He laughs as he discusses this piece of the book world, trying to be polite in his opinions.
“And so, I say there are three enemies of a book—water, sunlight, and librarians,” he jokes. “There’s only a few booksellers that I’ve known, and I’ve met thousands of them, that have studied library science.”
With physical stores, customers can be assured that the proprietor has experience and knowledge based on the contents of the store. In some instances, customers have come to Book Gallery falsely thinking that a book that purchased online was a first-edition.
The intricacies of the market goes far beyond a simple look at a price guide, according to Sproat.
“You have to put trust into this business,” Sproat says . “People have always known that [Riley] is a straight shooter. It’s one of his biggest advantages.”
“Everything in modern society is directly due to the advent of the invention of movable type in 1450 or so. The assimilation of knowledge— that it what has made our whole culture possible.”
Stephen Marc, a photography professor at School of Arts at Arizona State University, has been visiting the store for around ten years.
One of Marc’s first visits was for research on a project in which he published a collection of photographs exploring places associated with the Underground Railroad, which he explored for almost a decade. The photographs also appeared in a Summer exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2012.
“I was deep in the middle the project and I went [to Book Gallery] to pick some 19th century issues of Harper’s monthly,” Marc says. “They had these bound volumes of them.”
He has frequented the shop to browse the endless shelves, most notably the unique, precious items in sections like African-American history, Arizona and western history.
A memorable purchase for Marc was French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Europeans. Filled with photos of post-war Europe from the 1950’s, it was a first edition that included the original dust jacket a rare insert of captions, which Riley says were printed separately so as to not detract from the aesthetic value.
“The joke was I was coming in and visiting the book,” Marc says. “I think I walked in and talked about completing the adoption. It was incredible to have a book like that available to even look through. It’s a book I read about, heard about.”
Riley’s knowledge and experience comes largely in part from the books that surround him. He says books transform the human mind with education and make possible anything the reader wishes to pursue.
“The printed word has made possible everything you see around you,” Riley says. “Everything in modern society is directly due to the advent of the invention of movable type in 1450 or so. The assimilation of knowledge— that it what has made our whole culture possible.”
And as our culture progresses, Riley says it’s impossible to know where the medium for printed word will go. Although there’s no doubt that books will be here at least for another few generations, he says, the fate of books will be up to the people of the future.
“If they’re foolish enough [to just turn to technology], that’s their prerogative. I’m just glad I won’t be around to see it. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without books.”
Becky Brisley is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She can be contacted at email@example.com