Larger Than Life

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"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…" — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"In Dickerson did Quill and Brush a wondrous book-palace command." — Me

It was late 1997. I was visiting Allen and Pat Ahearn in their home and book business, Quill & Brush, in Rockville, Maryland.

I’d first met them in the early 1980s at their Bethesda shop. My visits usually coincided with the monthly Waverly Book Auction upstairs in the boutique shopping center they both occupied. Oddly, there was an antique carousel in the public area of the building. The Ahearns and Quill & Brush were legendary booksellers—especially to the group of Young Turk booksellers like myself who attended the auctions as learning seminars as much as opportunities to snag some deals. They’d been selling rare and collectible books since the 1960s. They’d written books on book collecting and how to identify valuable editions. Quill & Brush, the shop, was a dazzling jewel of brilliant and gleaming book spines. They were at the cutting edge of the collectible book boom that was the 80s and 90s. As a scruffy novice, I felt I didn’t belong in there, but Pat welcomed me each time as if I was well-heeled collector or high-end dealer who might actually buy something. Allen would put me at ease as well. He would chat and teach and freely share his knowledge and experience. Why? That was just their nature. At some point, they closed the shop due to skyrocketing rents or demolition of the building—I can’t recall—and moved the books to their home in Rockville.


Likely I had actually "interacted" with the Ahearns years before without any of us knowing. That house was only two blocks from where I’d grown up. I probably snuck through their backyard on more than one occasion as a short cut to friends’ homes. My dad had gotten called up to active duty due to the Vietnam War and the need for army doctors at Walter Reed. We moved to Maryland. He was thrilled. He’d always wanted to wear a uniform. That was in 1968. My dad was 59 at the time. He took a huge pay cut. The move to nearly new tract housing in a "development" as an 8th grader was a shock to my system. The schools were huge. There was nothing for kids to do in the neighborhood or, indeed, in the then small town of Rockville, MD. That likely got me more interested in books than I’d been already. Books could take me anywhere. Everywhere. But when I lived there on Levada Terrace, I’d never known the Ahearns or their kids.

It was always strange returning to my old neighborhood as a man—a businessman—a book man.

That house in Rockville was far nicer than the cookie cutter house my parents bought. It was half white brick. Allen and Pat had built a library/annex to house their books for this incarnation of Quill & Brush. It had a wrap around mezzanine lined with bookshelves. A cast iron, spiral staircase twisted from one level to the other. There was always jazz playing on the stereo. Standing in that library, surrounded by books was astounding. They were so luscious and perfect I’m sure I had trouble keeping my gaping maw shut. If I didn’t drool literally, I’m sure I did figuratively. Plus almost all of them were available for purchase—if you had the money. It was just so cool to me. Allen was cool. Pat was cool.

I can’t remember the reason for this particular visit. Likely, I was trying to sell them something.
They were always fair when purchasing high-end material from young booksellers. Their specialty was (and still is) first editions. So if I came across something spectacular that was too "good" (read expensive) for my open shop, I’d offer it and likely they’d pay me more than I’d realize if I had marketed it myself.

(Allen was always good to me. As Carl Sickles of Book Alcove was my "Elementary Mentor" so Allen became my "Advanced Mentor." I’ll devote future stories to them but this one  is about their home and their "home for books" they created in Dickerson, MD at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain.)

"Come over here and let me show you something."

He led me to the dining room table where he unrolled a set of blueprints and began explaining what they had planned. It was big. BIG.

Why was he sharing this with me? I was just one of many, many lower-level booksellers in the DC region who passed through from time to time. I felt special and surprised.

Sometime later, they sent an announcement to fellow booksellers and friends. I believe it was via snail mail but perhaps there was a fledgling Internet communication as well. If memory serves it went something like this:

["In our dotage we have decided to move and expand our home and bookselling enterprise…"] The epistle went on to describe where and when and how…

1997 and 1998 were watershed years for Wonder Book and me. The limitless potential for selling books on the Internet had swept us up like a whirlwind. We were busy trying to figure this new way of selling books electronically and internationally. It was an intense course of study. Plus I was trying to raise two small boys. So I didn’t visit the place during the construction.


Then they were all moved and open. I decided I should visit. Likely, I also had something pretty good to show them that I hoped would turn into money.

It is a winding route through rural, northern Montgomery County to their Xanadu. The last leg is down a gravel road. Sugarloaf Mountain Park on the left. Woods on the right. Just nature. No homes or buldings.

When I got down their long drive and first saw the building, it took my breath away. Huge! It was on a number of acres and no other neighbors or buildings were visible.

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

I entered the Quill & Brush Wing on the north side of the "H" shaped building. Straight ahead on the right, a hallway led nearly as far as the eye could see. To the left a wide stairway soared 15 feet or so up to the second level. It was a WIDE stairway. Was it 5 feet wide?

"Come on in."

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

To the left was the entrance to what they always called the Library. To my dazzled eyes it was a "Great Room." Floor to ceiling glass rose at the far end. Two TALL stories of glass looking out into woods. Only woods. To the right, Allen and Pat were seated at their partner’s desks. A wall of bibliographies and reference books were behind them. To the left was a wall of books with a nice fireplace in its center. Above was an expansive mezzanine lined with bookshelves, save for that wall of glass letting in the light and forest views. The shelves and trim and railings were all wood. Beautiful wood and books everywhere. Books above, below, and all around. And all of them were beautiful. Most in glowing mylar, protecting the valuable dust jackets. Most were fine or better. Quill & Brush rarely handled books with "condition issues."

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

That Great Room—"the Library" was so…big. BIG. And the ceiling soared to a peak between the flanking mezzanines.

Most of the Ahearns are tall. I’m not. Everything about the house seemed larger than life to me. It was all on a different scale—literally and figuratively.

I immediately thought of Beorn’s Lodge in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I was given a tour. "The Tour." Offices upstairs and down. Wrapping room. The whole left leg of the "H" was devoted to books and the business of selling and writing and evaluating books. Yes, Allen and Pat wrote a lot of books and a LOT of catalogs. The "guides" provided thousands of collectors and booksellers with directions and terminology, how-tos and arcane bibliographic points… The information their works provided to consumers and booksellers was a gold mine.

The body of the "H" downstairs was a vast playroom. A pool table. A large ornate bar. Tables and chairs and, of course, a long wall of books. Upstairs this section was a vaulted-ceilinged living and music room. The baby grand piano just took up a small corner of it to my eye. The walls were lined with vintage, autographed, jazz photos and some great art. The kitchen and dining room completed this section.

The right leg of the "H" was a residence—bedrooms etc—above and a book storeroom and garage below.

Oh, the books and parties that passed through there. Oh, the famous collectors and writers and artists and booksellers that passed through there. My family was finally convinced to visit for their famous, annual, Christmas Eve party. The parties were always attended by dozens. For years, everyone was required to sit on Santa’s lap. I’d been reluctant to attend. Christmas Eve had always been at "home" when I was growing. This place became the Christmas Eve "home" for my two little boys. And, now young men, they attended the last Christmas party there in 2016.


My father, not long before he died quite suddenly in my arms, told me, "Life’s not fair." I’d been railing about some social injustice or another. I was all of 20 years old. I mention this only because the cruelty which fate visited upon Pat and Allen from 2010-2014. Patricia Ahearn was the sweetest, most generous person. You immediately became a friend and a member of the extended family in her presence. If you were younger, she also became a surrogate mother to legions of up and coming booksellers. Heck, maybe she "mothered" a lot of the full-grown booksellers as well. The dreadful afflictions that were to haunt her final years were NOT fair. Allen’s devotion to her care was prodigious. I guess love gives you the strength to do Herculean and marathonic things.

When she passed in 2014, the house seemed to get bigger and sometimes "hollower." But Allen still had a few grandkids left to nurture, and they flowed in and out over the next few years. Allen started talking about selling the building.

"Too big just for me."

I tried talking him out of it. But as the last grandchildren grew and went to college or got married to begin their own clans, he was so often there alone. He was indeed a great and tall and larger than life man alone in a great and large and rambling edifice.

(BTW, the current count is thirteen grandkids and six great-grandkids.)

"I’m selling," he told me.

This time I knew he meant it.

He "meant" it certainly but he took his time. He wanted it done right. He made a joke of it when the final Christmas Eve party became the second and third final Christmas parties.

Then buyers stepped forward, and it was good match. They were wealthy and traveled a lot. They were in no rush to move in. Allen could take his time finding a new place and moving out.

He could also take his time downsizing his stock. Sale after sale culled the lower-end material.

Fate brought him a wonderful new partner, Nina. They determined to find a home to share between the city where she’d lived so long and the country where Quill and Brush arose from the forest.

They found a place in between—in Silver Spring.

Allen became very busy moving out and moving in and transferring much of the day-to-day Quill & Brush enterprise to his daughter and business partner Beth Ahearn Fisher at her Victorian home in Middletown, MD.

I missed him.

In August something compelled me ask to visit one last time. Well, I was also hoping he might sell me some of the framed prints and paintings and photos I’d admired for so many years… I also wanted some last pictures of the place so I asked Book Manager and In-House Photographer, Caryn Code, if she would like to go and record the last winding down of this great place.

We arrived on a late summer afternoon and entered the west door. Looking to the left into the Great Room, there were two long rows of brown, kraft paper, shopping bags. They were the kind with handles.

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

"It’s easier to move them in alphabetical order that way. Better than boxes. Protects them better as well."

The shelves downstairs were empty. I’ve always told my staff to keep the shelves full. If there’s any voids, face books out to fill them up. Empty bookcases make me think of home without windows. Soulless.

The partner’s desks and reference wall were mostly bare as well. A wave of sadness overwhelmed me. Something caught in my throat. I couldn’t say anything. I don’t like endings. I have never have.

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

Caryn asked if she could go through the house and take pictures and disappeared somewhere into the labyrinth.

"You doin’ ok?"

Did I speak those words or did he? I was probably in worse shape than he.

"How about a drink?"

Which one of us said that?

Two glasses of single malt whisky appeared in tumblers. Was it Glenmorangie 18?

We strolled slowly around the vast Great Room. So many memories flooded before me.

Then he said, "This is my last night here. THAT feels pretty strange."

While he wasn’t close to being moved out, he was ready to move in to his new home. He’d be staying here alone one last time. I felt lucky, honored to be sharing this last afternoon with him.

The vast high walls that were covered with art were now blank, white canvasses. Most of the framed things were stacked leaning against the shelves and walls.

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

"Do you think you’d want me to make an offer on some of the pictures? I’d like to have something that came from here."

"Sure. Look around."

I wandered around from room to room. Upstairs. Downstairs. The sun was dropping behind Sugarloaf Mountain. The fading light added to my moodiness.

The house had always been so full of life and books and people and art.

The Scotch began to work its magic and dealing with the inevitable became tolerable. I bent over stack after stack of frames. I gently pulled back on one after another. I recognized them all. They’d become part of me after so many visits. The various books had always come and went. (Many "went" with me over the last two decades.) But the walls had been virtually unchanged over the years. The Quill & Brush permanent exhibition.

Caryn asked if I wanted her to shoot anything in particular.

"Did you get…and…"

I got myself another generous pour—neat—and joined Allen in the living room. He was seated on one of the two long, leather couches placed at right angles to encourage conversation. I sat kitty-corner to him.


"I found a few things."

I mentioned this and that.

"Nah, I have a spot picked for that in Silver Spring."

Or

"I’m not ready to let that go yet."

Or

"The one of the kids (or grandkids) is interested in that."

Reluctance. I completely understood. If I felt attached to the works… Plus a number had been inscribed to him and Pat by various artists.


We chatted some more. Caryn joined us and we all drank some more Scotch.

Afternoon was becoming evening.

Time to go.

"Dinner plans?"

We decided to go out for Italian food.

I lingered behind and looked up the broad stairway. I set my tumbler down halfway up and whispered, “Cheers.”

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

I stepped outside, turned, and gave the magic place one last look.

"I’ll never see this place again."

I asked Caryn to get a few more shots of the exterior.

"Goodbye and thank you," I whispered.

Then we drove away for a farewell dinner.

The End.

…oooops!

Flash forward over a month.

Beth Ahearn Fisher sent me a text.

"Has my dad communicated with you recently about the books left at Sugarloaf? My understanding is…you are taking them?? They need to be picked up soon. Next week at the latest…"

"Nope…when can we come…"

Sunday. September 24th. I backed a Wonder Book van to the garage. Beth, Martin, and her son Thomas are there. I had enlisted Caryn again for final images.

We all assumed the familiar booksellers’ position: on our knees—packing boxes on the floor.

The books were stacked in various places around the storeroom and pool/barroom. They were mostly multiple, like new copies of authors whose collectibility—at least on their later titles—has faded. Cheever, Updike, Wouk, Fowler, John Gardner…

"We will do ‘something’ with them," I mused.

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

I walked through to the Great Room. It was REALLY empty now. The walls everywhere were empty and being painted white. The building was soulless now. But new souls would soon put their mark on it.

We rolled the thousand or two thousand books out to the van. The boxes were stacked in. The books were all gone from the house now. I’d removed the last of them.

The End.

…ooops

Wrong again.

I found out later, the new owners wanted the shelves on the mezzanine to have books on them! So Allen made a deal to leave them filled.

So some of Quill & Brush still remains there!

Once the van was packed, Beth handed me a beer from the Beer Fridge in the garage. We toasted the final sale with cans of Miller Lite Allen had left.

"Cheers!"

I started to roll down the driveway but stopped and got out. I wanted a last look at the building where I’d learned and grown so much as a bookseller.

Photo Credit: Caryn Code

I’ll likely never have a reason to go to such an out of the way spot again.

Unless the new owners…

Quill & Brush is now under Beth’s management in Middeltown, MD. And Allen has established what they are calling a "Branch Office" at his new place. He continues to wheel and deal for Quill & Brush and perform the occasional appraisal. I’m waiting for the invitation to both spots where this epic story will pick up again.

As for Sugarloaf… if there’s any justice, someday there will be an historical marker—like the blue circle signs you see on historic residences in London. It should read something like this,

"Onetime Home of Quill & Brush and Allen and Patricia Ahearn. Book Giants Lived Here."

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1 Comment on Article

  1. […] * Allen Ahearn who with his wife Pat (deceased) founded Quill & Brush and co-wrote many important reference books about rare books and book collecting. Read the story of their magnificent home at the foot of Sugarloaf mountain here. […]

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