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Best Local Bookstore

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Caliban Book Shop
410 S. Craig St., Oakland
412-681-9111 or www.calibanbooks.com

 

As Shakespeare fans know, if anything it should be "Prospero Book Shop." In The Tempest, Prospero was the learned magician, Caliban the brutish servant. But Caliban Book Shop opened in 1991 -- the same year as Prospero's Books, an arthouse adaptation of the play noted for its frequent nudity. "The image of John Gielgud naked was more than I could take," says John Schulman, who co-owns the store with his wife, Emily Hetzel.

In fact, there's far more to the tale of Caliban's name: Schulman can tell a story. But more importantly, he knows how to sell one. 

At a time when Barnes & Noble can't even make a go of it in Squirrel Hill, Caliban is holding its own. "We didn't have a business plan," Schulman admits. "But I knew a lot about books." 

Early on, Caliban focused on scholarly works for academics, but the internet has "changed the way people do research," Schulman says. So he now caters more to general-interest readers, trying to keep prices below those on Amazon. Still, serious collectors will find plenty of arcana. The literary criticism/essay section takes up three 7-foot-tall bookshelves. Art books, poetry, local history are all copiously represented. And where else will you find the three-volume Genealogical and Personal History of the Allegheny Valley? Or Medical Electricity and Röntgen Rays, a 1,200-page compendium of medical technology circa 1915?

Since 2004, Caliban has also housed Desolation Row, a record store operated by store manager Kris Collins. The emphasis here is on vinyl and rarities: "The weirder things tend to gravitate to me," Collins says. Record collectors, hes says, are "a little younger, the pants are a little tighter," than the average book-buyer. But the drive is the same.

"Collecting is an irrational thing," says Schulman. And buying books offers "the primal thrill of the hunt."

Perhaps his best score: a copy of a pamphlet on Halley's Comet, written by Edmond Halley himself. Schulman bought it from an amateur astronomer in Turtle Creek for $100; it was worth $30,000. (He split the proceeds with the seller's family.)

Finds like that are rare -- though Schulman occasionally comes across books signed by Thomas Mellon, or Andrew Carnegie. But "desire is one of the great human qualities," he says ... whether you crave a first-edition Scarlet Letter "or Hester Prynne herself." 

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