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Red Line Project - March 7, 2011
Owner of Printers Row Fine and Rare books John LaPine defends the "analog book" versus the new e-reader craze. LaPine claims, "there is nothing like the real thing."


Stop Smiling Magazine - February 15, 2006
The patience and detective work of bookseller John LaPine


The following article appeared in the Chicago Journal (Volume 4, No. 2, written by Lydialyle Gibson and a Staff Writer) on October 30, 2003 and provides a wonderful description of John LaPine, his shop, and his book collecting philosophy.

John LaPine found his cathedral awhile ago inside a narrow storefront in Printers' Row with a heavy wooden door, a pair of sunny windows, the curious air of a Victorian living room, and thousands upon thousands of books. Books stacked to the ceiling in cabinets with glass doors, books laid out in museum cases and on hardwood tables, books shelved head high along the walls, in the office, in a fluorescent-lit stock room. First editions, signed frontispieces, endangered copies, ancient tomes made from hand-hewn paper. 

Every morning, LaPine comes here to worship. He doesn't leave until his wife taps on the door 10 or 12 hours later to summon him home in the dark to supper and bed. "I have the greatest job in the world," LaPine said. "What job could be greater than this?" Since July, 2003 LaPine has been running Printers' Row Fine and Rare Books at 715 S. Dearborn, peddling everything from London newspapers dated 1681 to first edition copies of Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm. There's even a rare copy of Primary Colors tucked in among LaPine's collection of tattered masterpieces and pristine first editions. Lining the walls are framed signatures and the various personal scrawlings of Aldous Huxley, Ralph Ellison, Edith Wharton, Thomas Thackeray, William Faulkner, Carl Sandburg, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway. "I mean, where else can you go and there's a signature of Edith Wharton's on the wall?" LaPine said. "And here's the actual note Sandburg wrote to his wife telling her which of his poems was his favorite. 'Dear Lillian--my favorite poem of the 816 I have written is "The People, Yes," and I may sign here as your everloving Carl Sandburg.'"

Glancing above the hand-painted fireplace, unearthed from an old funeral home, LaPine spots another precious trifle. "That's the warrant signed by Queen Victoria admitting the ambassador of Paraguay to her court," LaPine said. But, of course, love letters and autographs aren't enough, even for the starstruck literary types. For true dazzlement, LaPine heads back into the stacks. The most expensive book in the store, he said, is an extremely fragile copy of Thoreau's Walden. LaPine's assistant isn't allowed to touch it. The sale price? $24,000. Not far behind is Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World, written in 1666 while the wayfaring adventurer, a onetime favorite of Elizabeth I, was locked in the Tower of London. LaPine claims he's got the only copy for sale in the world. "There's a really cool map in here," LaPine said, leaning heavy on the spine and slapping at the woven pages until they opened on an ornate, if slightly askew, drawing of the ancient world unfolding from the Mediterranean Sea.

Then, of course, there's the 1780 edition of Don Quixote cobbled together by printer Joaquin Ibarra. Aiming to publish the grandest version ever of Cervantes wandering tale, Ibarra assembled a horde of the best Spanish engravers, painters, typesetters, papermakers, and bookbinders. They produced a sumptuous four-volume edition of Don Quixote. Only a few copies were ever made. LaPine's once belonged to Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney. Ferrer inscribed the first page with a loving note, in Spanish, to Paul Robeson. "I'm only asking $15,000 for it," LaPine said. Given half the chance, LaPine will while away five hours of your life just like this. Even more, if he can, darting back and forth from bookshelf to bookshelf, calling out names, showing off signatures, reading snatches of first edition prose here and there. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald? LaPine has a whole wall of The Great Gatsby, The Last Tycoon, and Tender Is the Night. How about Ranier Marie Rilke? LaPine can read from the German. John Updike, John Irving, Raymond Carver? To Kill a Mockingbird? Dickens? Tucked near the floor in one cabinet, LaPine's got a whole row of Dr. Seuss. Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

LaPine has a first-edition Wizard of Oz for sale that was typeset in the very room where the shop now stands, back when the Donahue Building was home to a printing press. LaPine seems to have read a little from every book in the shop. "Everything we are as human beings, everything about our art, our love, our success, our disappointments, our majesty, is transmitted from generation to generation through the books," LaPine said. "It's all about the books. You don't need an education; you don't need a pile of degrees. If you know how to read, if you love to read, you can learn about anything. Wherever you go with a book, there you are." Things didn't always seem so clear to him. Before becoming a book dealer this summer, LaPine was a lawyer. He hated it. "For 11 long years, I was sick and tired to my stomach and almost throwing up about it every morning when I had to go to work," LaPine said. Before that, he spent a dozen years in Germany as a Polish-German-Russian linguist for the military. Reared in the south suburbs, he'd joined the Army as a kid and later returned to college for a degree in German, another in Political Science, and yet another from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

These days, LaPine doesn't like to talk much about that other life. He likes to talk about books. "I've been a book collector since I was 8 years old," he said. "I would read anything--cereal boxes, label wrappers, signs in the grocery store." And, books. For several years, he was a customer at the shop he now runs. Before LaPine arrived, though, with a few brightening touches and schedule of regular business hours, Printers' Row Fine and Rare Books was a shadowy place. As often as not, the shades were lowered and the doors were locked. "The guy wanted to be a bookseller, but he was only open maybe Monday, Wednesday, Friday, maybe from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.," LaPine said. "You could sometimes buy a book if the guy was here. I used to come by here and the place was closed. The place was closed, and the door was locked. Closed on Saturday? Closed after five o'clock? When do you think people buy books?"

So the company LaPine works for bought the store, lock, stock, and inventory. LaPine showed up and started dusting off shelves. "This is the most outstanding bookshop between New York and Los Angeles," he said. "There'd been scaffolding in front of the shop for three and a half years, so you couldn't see in. Most of the books hadn't been washed." Now the place is brighter. The door's unlocked. Last Friday afternoon, several browser's wandered through--a college professor, a couple curious pedestrians. An Amtrak employee--and 20th century American lit devotee--waiting to catch his train back to Washington, D.C. Right away, LaPine introduced him to a rare Salinger. Just for fun, he also pulled out a dictionary from 1848. "This is the first Webster's Dictionary that Merriam ever printed," LaPine boasted. "It's the first Merriam-Webster's Dictionary." What's more, he said, it belonged to Teddy Roosevelt's dad. The elder Roosevelt's name was scrawled--along with a smiley face--inside the book's front cover. The same afternoon, a German man dropped by on a whim. He and his wife were visiting relatives in Indiana and figured they'd pay a visit to the Windy City. Did LaPine, by any chance, have any Thomas Mann. Speaking in fluent German, LaPine offered up a copy of Death in Venice inscribed by the author himself.

"Where would you like to go?" he said later. "Do you want to go to the tobacco plantations? London? Paris in 1650? A little lost island off the coast of Louisiana? You can. It's about real stuff." LaPine insists that for him, books are more than a mere fancy. They're a calling. "They always come back to me," he said. "When I sell a book, I know I'll see it again. I'll tell you what I mean. When I left for the Army, at my parents' house I left a copy of the Oft-Told Tales of Lincoln that was given to my father by his aunt and uncle." By the time he'd returned, it was gone. Years later, though, LaPine was shopping in a used bookstore in Michigan when he spotted an Oft-Told Tales of Lincoln. He added it to his pile of books. Approaching the checkout counter, he took a look inside the cover. There was written his father's name and erstwhile address on Chapell Avenue. "I pulled out my wallet and told the guy, 'This one's free,'" LaPine said. "Books come back to me."


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