For the Love of Books

Kenyon's new used bookstore pays tribute to Denham Sutcliffe

If it were up to John Finefrock, no book would ever see the inside of a garbage can. A bookseller since the age of eight, Finefrock enjoys the physical presence of books--the ink and stitching, the heft in the hand, the delicacy of a page between the fingers, the durability of volumes ranged across a shelf. He loves books for their body as well as their soul, for the way they populate wandering aisles as well as wandering minds.

Now, thanks to Finefrock, who has long managed the Kenyon Bookstore, there's an even bigger population of books to entice the wandering minds of Gambier. On the first day of classes last fall, Finefrock opened a used-book shop at 100 Brooklyn Street, right around the corner from the bookstore.

Located in a century-old house with a porch and four and a half rooms, and open from noon to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday when classes are in session, the shop overflows with affordable reading material. Paperbacks sell for a quarter apiece, hard-covers for fifty cents.

Moreover, the new shop resurrects a memorable piece of College history. Finefrock named the shop Denham Sutcliffe, Bookseller, after the revered Kenyon English professor who ran a used-book business of the same name from the late 1940s to the late 1950s.

"We wanted to honor [Sutcliffe] as a scholar, teacher, and also as a bookseller," says Finefrock, whom everyone on campus knows as Jack. "Running any bookstore is an impossible challenge. It has to be a labor of love. And it was for Denham Sutcliffe."

Sutcliffe, who taught at Kenyon from 1946 to 1964, once explained to the Collegian that book-selling was merely something he did for a hobby, "as other men collect baseball scores." His informal enterprise started as a single display table in the College Bookshop on Chase Avenue, where the Office of Development is currently located. Over the next few years, it grew to fill a room, then three rooms, then four, and from a handful of titles to some eight thousand volumes.

"All the best books are necessarily second-hand," wrote the Victorian essayist Augustine Birrell. Sutcliffe took that observation as his motto.

By 1952, his business had expanded into a space at the rear of Lynch's barber shop on Gaskin Avenue, where Farr Hall (home of the current Kenyon Bookstore) stands today. He circulated typewritten handbills announcing the opening of a shop called Books, Gambier, and touted it as "Knox County's largest second-hand book store." Two years later, he took over an additional room north of the barber shop. Out front he hung a sign that bore a crowing rooster and the new name, "Denham Sutcliffe, Bookseller."

Originally, the shop was open several evenings a week as well as Sundays. But customers seemed to show up only on Sunday afternoons, so Sutcliffe settled on Sunday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., as his business hours. Former provost Bruce Haywood remembers Sutcliffe reading the New York Times, beer in hand, while minding the store.

Decor was not a consideration. Professor Emeritus of Physics Franklin Miller Jr., who lived in Douglas House, next door to the shop, recalls the place as "a dark hole in the wall with not-very-nice homemade shelves."

Books took center stage. Sutcliffe advertised "books for every taste and every purse," with "every book a bargain." A serious collector could find a first edition of Moby-Dick selling for forty dollars, while the impecunious might emerge with an armload of cheap reading material. "Seventeenth-century folios may be seen sneering at paper-backed French novels," reported an article in the Alumni Bulletin in 1952, adding that some of the stock was, frankly, "junk."

Less desirable titles sold for five cents a volume. A set of lectures by John L. Stoddard priced at five cents a pound. (Today, a complete set of Stoddard's lectures in good shape sells on the Internet for about a hundred dollars.)

The shop specialized in printed matter relating to the College. There were pamphlets by and about Philander Chase, the first nine issues of the Kenyon Collegian published in 1856, volumes of Reveille going back to 1876, and, according to one account, "long runs of Ye Harcourte Mayde," which was a periodical publication of the Harcourt Place School for Girls in Gambier. The walls displayed such Kenyoniana as an 1865 examination schedule, programs of undergraduate entertainment from the 1850s, and old photographs of College buildings and people.

The store closed around 1958 or 1959, several years before Sutcliffe's death in 1964 at the age of fifty-one.

Much like its predecessor, the new Denham Sutcliffe, Bookseller began as a display table in the back room of the Kenyon Bookstore. Finefrock soon had the table surrounded by carts, then free-standing bookshelves. Eventually, bookcases bearing used books made navigation difficult, and he sought a bigger space.

Meanwhile, the College had purchased the house at 100 Brooklyn Street and was entertaining suggestions for its use. The senior administration unanimously supported Finefrock's proposal for a used-book store. Sutcliffe's son and daughter-in-law, John '68 and Jenny Sutcliffe, parents of Mary Sutcliffe '04, generously donated the old sign with the rooster, which proudly hangs inside the new shop.

Finefrock reviews all of the books he receives, determining their worth and sorting them by subject. He sets aside the more valuable items for sale at the regular bookstore or via the Internet. Others find a home in the new shop, which boasts sturdier shelving and more natural light than its forebear. Some twenty thousand volumes currently await Finefrock's inspection. He expects to add about three hundred books to the shelves each day.

Books come from a variety of sources. Finefrock has asked Kenyon's academic departments to send him unwanted textbooks, and he welcomes donations from retiring faculty members who wish to purge their bookshelves. The custodial staff sends him books they find in the trash. Individuals also contribute books.

But most of his stock comes from the libraries at Kenyon, Denison University, the College of Wooster, and Ohio Wesleyan University, all of which share their collections as part of a consortium. Libraries routinely acquire multiple copies of one title, and some books are serials and quickly become outdated. Without a repository for these unwanted books, the colleges are happy to donate them to Finefrock.

The new shop is not regularly staffed, although personnel in the Kenyon Bookstore track activity via cameras. Patrons pay for their purchases through a hole in the wall. Those wishing to use a credit card or student account may pay at the regular bookstore.

"We work on the honor system," says Finefrock, "and so far most people are overpaying."

The shop does have a student manager. Elizabeth Petty, a first-year student from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who loves books as much as Finefrock, discovered the shop when she arrived at Kenyon last fall. She met with Finefrock and offered to volunteer her time there, providing such services as alphabetizing the stock. Finefrock, in turn, has been teaching her about acquisitions, evaluation, marketing, and other aspects of the business. This coming summer she plans to attend the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, a program for booksellers, librarians, and collectors.

She and Finefrock envision a time when the new Denham Sutcliffe, Booksellers becomes a well-established part of Kenyon's literary scene, hosting student readings and autograph parties for young authors. Student writers have already begun to hang out at the shop. They leave flyers advertising upcoming readings elsewhere on campus and poems by visiting writers.

"In some bookstores you'd find candy wrappers on the table," says Finefrock. "At Kenyon, you find poems."

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