Malcolm offers glimpse into world of rare books

John Malcolm, of Rivertown Fine Books, has an inventory of close to 40,000 rare books along with other unique items like old toys and maps. (Photo by Audrey Posten)


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


“I’ve loved books from the time I could read,” said John Malcolm, owner of Rivertown Fine Books in McGregor. “People would give me books, so I accumulated a bunch as I got older.”


That love has continued to grow over the years. Malcolm spent 25 years as a pilot, traveling around the country. After his duties were complete at each stop, he’d take a rental car and find a second-hand book store, trading in a stack of books for one or two more valuable ones. At one time, within one week of each other, Malcolm said separate book dealers in Denver and Louisville said he should be in the business. So, he thought he’d give it a try.


Rivertown Fine Books opened 13 years ago with an inventory of 3,500 books. Today, said Malcolm, he has close to 40,000 rare and unique books, along with other unusual items like old maps and toys. And he’s always looking for more.


“There’s a good inventory with all kinds of books,” he said. “I pay well, so word trickles out. People who like books tend to have friends who like books.”


Malcolm said people often travel through the area and stop in, then tell friends about the store. For many, it’s a favorite place to return to, even if they’ve never actually been there. Rivertown Books sells a number of books online at reputable sites. Last Thursday alone, Malcolm said he needed to get seven ready to ship. 


Whether you’re buying online or from the store, Malcolm said it’s important to know who you’re buying from.


“It’s not that sellers are fraudulent,” he explained, “but people don’t really know what they have. They’ll come in and say a book is a first edition, but they’re often mistaken. Sometimes a book will say it is when it’s not. It gets confusing.”


In regard to first editions, Malcolm said collectors look for books that are first edition, first printing, first issue and within the first dust jacket.


Some books, he said, are just old, and not necessarily valuable.


On Thursday, a woman came into the shop with some books by Winston Churchill containing fictional stories about American history. She wanted to have them restored and asked for Malcolm’s opinion on whether they’d be worth salvaging. Unfortunately, explained Malcolm, the books, although over 100 years old, were not a complete set. They were also not written by the Winston Churchill of WWII fame, but  rather by the American novelist Winston Churchill.


Although the books were popular back in the day, selling millions of copies, Malcolm said he didn’t believe they were worth much now, but that he would know more after doing a bit of homework.


“You have to compare apples with apples,” he explained to her, “and I need to find out which apple this is.”


Most people are happy with his assessments, Malcolm said. Sometimes they’re surprised to find they have something special.


“Sometimes you find something valuable,” Malcolm said of when people bring in boxes of books. “It’s amazing what’s out there.”


That’s just one of the 100 reasons he enjoys being in the business Malcolm said. He also enjoys speaking with people about books and hearing customers speak with one another about books.


Malcolm said working in this area also brings some interesting items through the door.


“This an old town, an old area,” he said. “Before TV and radio, what was the entertainment? People visited each other, went to the circus and read books. Those old books are still out there.”


Although some worry e-books will lead to the end of book stores, Malcolm said he’s not worried.


“I love e-readers because young people will want to buy and use one. People will read books on there who wouldn’t pick up a [physical] book,” he said. “Reading is its own reward. It’s fun and informative, so hopefully they’ll switch to real books.”


While traveling with an e-reader is often easier, Malcolm said it’s hard to beat a real book.


“It’s hard to beat a book when you can feel the book, it’s heft and weight, and smell the book,” he said. “I just love seeing old books where you wonder whose owned it, where it’s been and what’s gone on around it.”

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