Inside the cobalt-blue building on Craig Street in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood is a shop with barrister bookcases and thousands of titles. Beloved by bookworms and bibliophiles, Caliban Books is a place where readers and collectors converge to buy, sell and discover used and rare printed works, art, collectibles, photographs and other materials.
Four miles east of “blue heaven,” as some may deem it, is the warehouse, a Wilkinsburg-based windowless gray building, which once served as the photo-processing plant for Wonday Film Service.
Accessible by appointment only, the Ross Avenue site holds approximately 150,000 books, half of which are not even indexed.
“We don’t get a ton of visitors,” said Seth Glick, a Caliban employee of nearly a decade. Nevertheless, the space “allows us to buy large collections and gives us time to catalogue and list” the contents.
During a tour of the facility, which led up and down uneven stairs, along seemingly endless shelves and around crannies crammed with crates and dusty oddities, Glick described Caliban’s process. The store, which is co-owned by John Schulman and Emily Hetzel, recently acquired 5,000 art books from an apartment in Oakland. As is typically done, what Glick and others will do is separate the materials — some for online listings, some for sale in the Oakland store and the remaining ones for donations.
Often, such large collections come from retirees or children of collectors.
They usually reach out, and “we look around and ask are these books for us,” explained the Pittsburgh native.
And with a holding so large, what exactly is Caliban’s criteria?
“We either want scarcity or interest,” said Glick.
An example of such might be a Picasso volume signed by the artist or with an original lithograph. Either of those create a “something extra” that makes it more desirable to potential purchasers, he noted.
But books aren’t the only thing in Caliban’s hull. Beside a shelf with an IBM Selectric II typewriter, a Kenwood VR-705 audio-visual surround receiver and a tripod sat a plastic box with silver apparatuses for projecting light, a hand-colored stringless guitar, a paperback copy of “Zen Buddhism” by Christmas Humphreys and The Club, the iconic red-and-black automotive steering-wheel lock.
“That’s my boss’ brain pretty much. He’s a collector, he’s a seller. It’s a jumble, but that’s a pretty good jumble,” said Scott Silsbe, before speculating that the almost not-yet painted still life “probably came out of his minivan at some point.”
Playing equal homage to the vehicular transport was a cloth seat and affixed cup holder resting on the floor in another corner of the warehouse’s basement.
“All booksellers eventually buy a minivan and take the seats out and pack it full of books. That’s the move,” said Glick.
Because of present company Glick pulled a few copies of Jewish reads from Caliban’s collection. There was a Jewish Liberation Haggadah, a Yiddish book of work songs and a 17th- century Christian Hebraist treatise on the rites of ancient Hebrews.
Each of the works varied in cost.
“We try to have a wide selection of prices,” said Glick. “For serious collectors, we can show them a range of different options but also if people want to dip their toe in the water we’re happy to answer questions and help them get started.”
And that is not a regionally limited offer. Caliban has clients “around the world,” said Glick. “If you have a computer, you can buy a book from us, and we can pop it in the mail, and you can have it in two weeks no matter where you are.”
For some of Caliban’s contents, shipping globally is almost cyclical.
With regard to several of the older items or even those printed in Europe before World War II, Glick is amazed at “all of the things that had to happen” for certain books to arrive in Caliban’s hold. Apart from being carried on a boat, the owner or family had to deem the material important enough to travel with, and the items additionally had to survive.
Couple that with the fact that “frequently we buy books from people who bought books from us,” and the trade has almost seasonal qualities, said Glick. After decades in someone’s hands, the books may be “ready to go to another home.”
Now whether that soon-to-be prosperous seeker has an interest in devilish, nautical or relatively anthropomorphic material, Caliban and its wild warehouse should likely serve as an isle of discovery.
Said Glick, “With this many books, there’s got to be something for everyone.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.