After the hubbub and sensory overload of the Kentucky Derby, I always take a few days to explore Lexington, Ky. These are peaceful days. I usually visit the Keeneland Library researching topics for future stories. But there are so many books, and so little time. This year, I decided to check out Lexington’s award-winning used book store, Black Swan Books.
I have been a fan of bookstores since I was a child. My senses heighten as I wander up and down the rows of books as I seek treasures. I instantly perked up when I walked in the door. The building that houses the Black Swan was built in 1912, and it used to be a plumbing store with the showcase up front and the living quarters in the back. This produces a lovely meandering path as you wander from room to room and into the comfortable back room with a fireplace. Almost everything in the building is original.
The proprietor Michael Courtney, 63, has led a life of books. As a child, he loved the British author G.A. Henty’s historical adventure stories. At the University of Kentucky, which is just around the corner, he earned his Masters in library science, specializing in rare books. He worked in the UK Special collections as the curator of the Hillbrook political memorabilia collection. At the age of 34, he opened Black Swan Books and said that he built the bookstore “one book at a time.”
The Black Swan specializes in Kentucky authors, military history, literature and cookbooks. You know the kind; those fabulous old Southern cookbooks that are worn and notated. And of course, he has books covering all aspects of horse racing. No westerns (except maybe Zane Grey), popular fiction or romance novels to be found here, but if rare and collectible books or something special in a leather binding is your quest, this is the place for you.
Courtney escorted me back to the rare book collection, which featured a nice selection of horse books. The walkways were adorned with sturdy boxes holding Courtney’s recent purchase of 850 volumes of 20th century books by women poets. I asked him if he had the turf writer Joe Palmers (1904-1952) book “This Was Racing,” which I was hoping to purchase as I had given my copy away as a gift. I smiled because Courtney knew instantly what I was looking for. “Yes,” he said, “unfortunately it is sitting in a box on my counter waiting to be shipped to Great Britain.”
Many of Courtney’s customers are from all over the world. Out of town customers flood his store during the Keeneland meet, the local horse sales and Derby week. They are usually looking for books about thoroughbred breeding or Stud Books to complete their collections. Frederico Tesio and Ken McLean books are very popular. Many people purchase books from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series for their kids or because they read them in their childhood and are completing their set.
Courtney’s oldest book in his store right now is a 1618 book of religious sermons in English. One of his most exciting books was a copy of John Filson’s 1784 “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke” of which there are only 12 known copies.
The Black Swan is a one-man operation. People bring Courtney books every day looking to sell or trade.
“Some days that’s all I do all day long is look at books,” he said. “The basement is full, the building next door is full, and all the boxes on the floor are full. I can’t afford help anymore, it’s just me.”
I spent hours carefully going through the horse books and finally honed my selections down to 14 volumes. Many of the books are pristine and autographed enhancing their provenance with the mementos of previous owners. Courtney has wrapped the hardbacks individually in clear jacket book covers.
The last book he read was Frank Case’s “Tales of a Wayward Inn” about the history of the Algonquin hotel in New York, which Case owned. I asked him if there was a special book he was looking for. He responded, “There are lots of books I would love to have personally, but is there a one book that people are looking for? Not really because everything eventually shows up here at some point.” He did pause when I asked him how he felt when he was holding a book in his hands. “That is not a fair question,” he said. “I am probably more attuned to books than most people. It doesn’t matter whether it is good or bad. Notably it’s more than an object.”
Courtney has embraced modern technology. He has a Web site and a Facebook page in which he announces his latest purchases or coming poetry readings. He says Facebook is how he reaches out to the college crowd. “The point is once you get the young people in the door, then a lot of them are mesmerized,” he said. “Plus a lot of them have never seen a real book store, and they come back.”
We talked about the plight of books. Many older books have lost their audience. They are not published in electronic versions to be read on a Kindle. He has to turn away a lot of books because there is no market for them. He explained to me that many books donated to second hand stores are simply shipped away to be pulped. “They do not deserve to be pulped because we are losing information. In the “information world”, we are losing information and that is sad.”
About a week after I returned home, a box arrived from Black Swan Books. Inside was each of my purchased horse books neatly wrapped in brown butcher paper, each protected in their jacket cover. I am a patient woman. I know that I could easily find my Joe Palmer book on Amazon. But I would rather let Michael Courtney find it for me, a man who is sharing his love of books with the world, one book at a time.
In a bucket-list moment, Julie June Stewart bought a ticket to the 2008 Belmont. She hasn’t stopped going to the races since. That is when she isn’t taking on a wildfire, hurricane, volcano or oil spill as the nation’s leading expert in disaster airspace coordination. She recently won third place in the 2012 Thoroughbred Times fiction contest with her suicide prevention story “Moses Finds A Jockey.”