The book hunters

Lorne Bair, team seek documents that changed minds
Lorne Bair, owner of Lorne Bair Rare Books, leafs through his first edition copy of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," one of his favorite acquisitions.  Jake Zuckerman/Daily

Lorne Bair, owner of Lorne Bair Rare Books, leafs through his first edition copy of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," one of his favorite acquisitions. Jake Zuckerman/Daily

WINCHESTER – Lorne Bair owns a bookstore, but it’s not just any old bookstore. You don’t go there to pick up a textbook for class, and you don’t go there to snatch up the new “Harry Potter” book.

In fact, you don’t even go there without an appointment.

Working with three other curators, Bair runs Lorne Bair Rare Books in Winchester. Shoppers need to call in to arrange a visit – when he and his staff aren’t traveling the world looking for products. He specializes in 20th century movements considered radical at the time, like civil rights, women’s rights and gender studies.

“We comb the world looking for the bizarre, the forgotten, and the interesting, and we make it something,” Bair said. “And it’s never boring.”

Laid out on desks around the complex, which is equal parts library and office, books and documents dating back to the 1800s fill the tables. Some are propaganda leaflets Vietnamese soldiers dropped from airplanes to U.S. soldiers to bring down morale. Others are pieces of toilet paper with Adolf Hitler’s face caricatured on it.

Bair and his youthful team, comprised of Amir Naghib, 36, Helene Golay, 29, and Francesca Blom, 28, scour the globe for the original copies of the books, posters and ideas that moved society forward.

“We’re big on books that changed thinking,” Naghib said, while offering a tour of the collection.

Per Naghib’s words, some of the most seminal works of the English language fill Bair’s bookshelves. He has a first edition copy of classics like Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior of the Human Male.”

The acquisition process, of which all Bair’s employees engage in, take them on house calls to strangers’ attics and fellow rare book stores alike.

The team recently came upon a document that was hung up in Winchester in the 1800s, advertising a clairvoyant in the area and his services in animal magnetism and phrenology.

“Something like this can turn up anywhere,” Bair said, looking at the poster. “This could be folded up in someone’s family Bible. In fact, often, that’s where you find interesting things is folded up in family Bibles.”

After they come across anything of interest, the team has a process to assess its value.

First, they figure out the context and significance of the work. They then determine its rarity, figure out whether or not anyone would even care about it, decide who can do the most good with it, and then figure out how much they can pay.

Despite the team’s broad reference library and expertise, Bair considers himself a middleman who acquires information for real academics to determine.

“It’s not our job, really, to be scholars,” he said. “We have to be scholars up to a point, but our real responsibility is to get the stuff sold to real scholars who have the background to do the real work.”

At the moment, Bair and company are backlogged with material to assess, catalog and sell. Their stash ranges from the more marketable works from Willa Cather, Hunter S. Thompson and George Orwell, to the store’s real specialty, the products of the rebel rousers and agents of change dating as far back as the Antebellum South.

While he likes the popular names as much as the rest of us, Naghib said it’s the niche work that excites him the most.

“What we love is the stuff that no one’s written anything about,” he said. “We have to dig a bit, but it’s pretty gratifying work.”

To arrange a tour or viewing of a particular product, interested parties can visit the store’s website at www.lornebair.com.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com

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Jake Zuckerman