Written by: Elizabeth Ann Morabito
When I stumbled upon the West Side Book Shop, I froze in the middle of the sidewalk. It’s a good thing nobody was following too close behind because they surely would have crashed right into me. The other-worldliness of the shop’s facade, reminiscent of days gone by, beckoned me to enter. Unspoken promises of adventure, knowledge, inspiration, and whimsy lay between the covers housed within, just waiting to be discovered.
In the early 1970s, Jay Platt visited New York City’s Book Row – a long gone but once famous stretch of six blocks containing over three dozen book shops. This singular experience inspired him to transform his passion, then a hobby, into a career. After working in bookstores for a few years, he and some partners took the plunge, opening the West Side Book Shop in 1975. The initial inventory consisted of about 4,000 books with a great many from Platt’s personal collection.
Bookstores like this are as rare as the antiquarian booksellers running them. The recent documentary, The Booksellers, gives insight into the role these bookstores play in preserving history.
The number of books has grown six-fold, covering nearly every square inch from floor to ceiling. It’s one of those places where you think you’ve seen it all, but then there’s another room or nook or cranny around the corner.
There’s a laundry list of characteristics that make this particular book store and its owner really rather unique and quite special. Here are my top five, starting with the most obvious, but you might be surprised by what’s further down the list!
- Inventory: The store houses an extensive collection of rare and antiquarian books. A couple of first edition treasures currently on the shelves include a set of four British Winnie the Pooh books by A. A. Milne and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. But, there’s also thousands of less costly books such as paperback fiction and hard cover non-fiction ranging from scientific to spiritual and everything in between. According to Platt, “I carry books in many different subjects…from paperbacks which I have in my middle room to more expensive books…so a broad range of interests.” One of Platt’s favorite books is Wind in the Willows, not a well-read book he loved as a child but surprisingly a post-high school discovery. Because of this fondness, he always keeps a copy in the store. Since I had not read the book, I decided during our interview to buy the one he had on hand. Instead, Platt graciously gifted it to me. I have since read it and just as he promised, the writing is brilliant and its message transcends the ages.
- Longevity: Forty-six years in existence, a veritable millenium for a book store, makes it one of the oldest in Washtenaw County. Platt’s goal is to at least reach the shop’s semi-centennial in 2026, but given his passion I suspect it will be around for many more years to come. Bizarrely, when I was doing research in my attempt to definitively determine how rare it is for a bookstore to exist this long, multiple reputable shops across the country closed at their 46-year mark in 2020. Hats off to Platt and West Side Book Shop for surviving the height of the pandemic, successfully surpassing its literary shelf life.
- Accessibility: Oftentimes a shop carrying antiquarian and rare books of this caliber is not open to the general public. However, Jay believes all books regardless of their value are meant to be experienced by all, not just a select few. While some are kept out of reach or behind glass, most are available to touch, hold, and page through. As for the others…well, just ask.
- Expertise: Platt is renowned nationwide for his expertise on the Antarctic, and in particular, on polar exploration and has the vast collection to back that up. Since he frequently takes them with him to book fairs across the country, these books are kept elsewhere, but of course he is more than happy to share with those who seek.
- There’s More: In the back room, which was appropriately once a photography studio, you will find an extensive collection of vintage maps and photos sold by Doug Price. I purchased one, a hand-colored map of Saginaw County, Michigan from 1873, to frame for a Christmas present for my hard-to-buy-for parents who live in Saginaw. Also, scattered throughout the store are vintage typewriters, which Price claims are making quite the comeback for those seeking a more tactile experience.
I strongly suggest stopping in to see what version of Wind in the Willows is in stock now! If you haven’t read it, perhaps you too should give it a go.