Nestled between the Shirt Shack and the Covenant Creations Salon on Main Street, Rapid City’s newest bookstore doesn’t look particularly remarkable from a distance.
But one step through the door of Van Norman Rare Books reveals a treasure trove of history, literary tales and a collection of rare books accumulated over a lifetime.
That green-colored book in the glass display case by the front door? That’s a first-print, first-edition copy of “The Theory of the Leisure Class, An Economic Study of Institutions,” by Thorstein Veblen. Published in 1899, it’s valued at about $3,000.
The book next to it? “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” written and signed by Gertrude Stein.
Walk a little further into the store and look in the small cabinet in the right corner of the shop. There, you’ll see books published generations ago, such as “A South Dakota Guide,” a travel guide published in 1930 by the Works Progress Administration that runs for about $200; and “A History of the Rod,” by Rev. William Cooper, which details techniques for spanking delinquents with a rod.
Those are just a few of the gems to be found at the store owned by Bob Van Norman and his wife Erin Van Norman. They opened the store in early July at 519 Main St. with roughly 15,000 rare books and collectibles that Bob Van Norman collected over a more than 50-year period.
Bob Van Norman, 68, said he started collecting books when he was still in high school, and it became a lifelong passion.
“When I was 17, I told someone that I was interested in reading and going to law school and that sort of thing,” he said. “That person took me to her home, got a ladder out, went up into her attic and gave me old, leather-covered law books. I had no idea if they were worth anything, but it started there. I loved the smell, I loved the touch.”
That love affair with all things bound continues today. Van Norman showed off one of his latest acquisitions called, “La Perspective Pratique De L’architecture,” a guide to French architecture in the 18th century written by Louis Bretez that was published in 1751. Van Norman said it hasn’t been priced yet because while the interior of the book is in excellent shape, the exterior is not.
Spend five minutes talking to Van Norman and it becomes obvious that he is a voracious reader.
One of his favorite books is “The Life Work of ‘Farmer’ Burns,” published in 1911, which tells the story of wrestler Martin, “Farmer” Burns. According to the book, Burns traveled to various towns to demonstrate his physical talents and his feats of strength, Van Norman said. Apparently the strength of Burns’ neck was so legendary that townspeople would pay to watch him be hanged and survive the drop thanks to his sheer strength.
When he talks about “Outwitting History,” an autobiography of Aaron Lansky, one can hear the admiration in Van Norman’s voice. As a college student, Lansky and some friends basically drove around and collected books written in Yiddish. Lansky eventually collected more than a million books written in Yiddish and became the founder of the Yiddish Book Center. Though they have never met, Van Norman admires Lansky since he also places a high value on history.
The store hasn’t been open for too long, but many of its sales have been to a mixture of teachers, librarians, tourists and lawyers, he said.
Although Van Norman’s book collection makes up the lion’s share of the merchandise, he also has various portraits, paintings, and other collectibles he acquired during his extensive travels, such as a handmade desk set made in Bulgaria that he bought when he lived in Uzbekistan. There’s also a fossilized dinosaur egg from China.
Van Norman, who said he has visited 57 countries, also greatly enjoys telling stories of how he came upon certain pieces of his collection. He couldn’t stop smiling as he recounted a tale of how he acquired a movie card of “The Lone Ranger,” signed by the original lone ranger, Clayton Moore.
“I was in Buenos Aires two years ago in Argentina when I went into this junk shop,” he said. “The guy spoke no English, just a Spanish variant, so I started humming the ‘William Tell Overture,’ he joined in, clapped me on the back and gave me a good deal.”
He said the store will probably have an online option for people to purchase books, but he greatly prefers selling books to people in person. It’s more enjoyable when a person can see and touch a book and maybe chat about the piece before any sale is made.
“I’ve bought a few things online to fill out the collection, but it’s not as much fun,” he said.
Plenty of books can be called rare, because they’re hard to find, but those aren’t works Van Norman is interested in. Van Norman said he is interested in books that are rare — and valuable.
“A rare book is one that has value beyond the pages and cover,” he said.
The fame of the author, the public’s appreciation of the work, quality of the content, its age and condition — those all contribute to a book’s value, he said. Ideally it is a first-print, first-edition copy of the work to qualify. Other factors can contribute to a book’s value and rarity, such as if it’s signed by the author, or was later censored.
The prices of the items in the shop range from $15 to $5,000. The shop has first-print, first-edition copies of extremely recent works for people who might want collect them as an investment. If enough time passes and the author becomes famous enough, the original print run of a classic book can reach well into the tens of thousands of dollars.
For example, the original copy of the James Bond book, “Moonraker,” by Ian Fleming is worth $15,000. An original copy of Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is worth $15,000 to $20,000, he said.
Van Norman’s primary occupation is as a criminal defense attorney, so his wife, Erin Van Norman, often runs the day-to-day affairs at the store.
“We want to sell people who will have an appreciation for the written word,” Erin Van Norman said. “just like we do.”
The shop is open on Tuesday from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.. Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from Noon to 6 p.m. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays.