A Life filled With Stories
Story by Julia Waggoner // Photos by Kevin McMillon
Th e walls are a deep marigold, the cement steps leading up to the front door are surrounded by leafy green bushes,
and wind-chimes hang from the front porch. A fluffy off-white cat lounges on the welcome mat, ready to escape inside through a missing pane at the bottom of the glass door at the fi rst sign of a visitor.
Before Gyngr Schon comes out to invite the guest in, seemingly alerted by the cat as much as the doorbell, the only sign that this house is the Old London Bookshop is a British flag covering the front window.
Inside, the building is like nowhere else.
Valencia Vigil, a friend of Schon, says it's like a place out of the works of Charles Dickens.
Though Schon lives there, The Old London Bookshop is anything but a typical home. It is the largest antiquarian
bookshop in the Pacific Northwest, offering some 50,000 rare books for sale to collectors, museums and other rare-
book dealers. Schon sells a few books each month, though some months she doesn't make any sales at all. For 20 years she ran the business with her husband Michael, until he passed away at the end of March, leaving her unsure of what the future holds for her and her literary home.
Every wall of Schon's 17-room house is covered with wooden shelves crammed with the pristine spines of books that vary in age from the sixteenth century to modern day and in subject from crime fi ction to travel, science fi ction, philosophy and the occult. But for a book-lover like Schon, not everything in the shop can be for sale.
"My William Blake set will be buried with me," Schon says. "If I were wealthy and a collector I'd be a William Blake collector. I'm not wealthy and I have to make my living selling books, so I have one thing I treasure."
As she gives the grand tour of her store, Schon smiles behind large, round glasses, her eyes rimmed with dark and faintly purple liner. Her wrinkled face peeks out from between the swirls of her matching crocheted cap and robe, both striped with bands of periwinkle, white and lavender. Her frame is small and hunched, and she gasps slightly for breath when she speaks or climbs the steep, red-carpeted stairs to the second floor of the shop.
"Hello, Chester," Schon says to the orange tabby awakened from his nap when she opens the door to the modern fi rst editions section. He's curled up on one of a pair of armchairs wedged between the bookshelves in this room where she does most of her day-to-day living. Chester and the fluffy white cat from the doorstep are just two of the four felines Schon lives with in the bookshop.
Th e store is only open by appointment, in part to protect the condition of her books, in part so Schon can focus on the work of finding clients and acquiring books, but she welcomes visitors who call ahead.
"She's such a nice person and just a dear," Vigil says. She works at the Lynden's antiquarian bookshop, Antiquariat Botanicum. "Kind and yet with a sharp mind -- and those two qualities don't often go together."
Schon and her husband worked toward opening their own bookshop for a decade before moving to Bellingham in 1988 and converting this gold Victorian into a store. Schon was employed as an executive secretary during those years in Pasadena, Calif., doing temp jobs so she could attend book sales and add to the couple's collection. they both loved books from an early age and soon after they married in 1975 they decided to try to make a living doing what made them happiest: acquiring books.
"When we met we both had large private libraries," Schon says. "When we joined together it was rather dangerous because we just fed off each other's habits."
Evidence of those habits covers the store in more than books. Each room holds a genre of books and artifacts that add to its ambience: African baskets in the travel section; a Sherlock Holmes-style cap and coat in the crime fi ction section; an "Alice in Wonderland" chess set in the fantasy and science fi ction room.
Schon's husband loved chess and collected history- and literature-themed sets for sale in the store. He played chess as well, often with Michael Elmer, who owns Michael's Books in downtown Bellingham.
"Michael Schon was a quirky, old-style professor who studied books and enjoyed them immensely," Elmer says.
He was also a devoted husband through more than three decades. Schon's voice breaks and tears well up in her eyes as she talks about her husband and her plans. She asked Elmer to continue referring buyers to her and wants to keep the shop open, but she says she doesn't know how long she'll be able to continue alone in her house full of work, memories and books.