Whitlock’s Book Barn in Bethany has been a well-loved destination for over 50 years. Its unique site—two small barns adjacent to a rolling field with two large barns—is a reminder of Bethany’s bucolic past. The area is just part of what was a large farm. Horses now graze in the field that formerly pastured sheep and cows. On a back door of one of the big barns there is a bronze plaque proclaiming ownership: C.E.H. Whitlock.
There are only a few people left in the area who remember the man who began the bookstore that would give rise to the Book Barn. “Old C.E.H.” is how the late Thelma Lumpkin, who lived a few houses up the road, referred to him when she spoke of the old days. She was over 90 when we talked about him; he had been dead about forty years.
The history of Whitlock’s bookstore incarnations begins well over a century ago in New Haven with the Reverend William H. Kingsbury. Kingsbury, ordained but not a practicing minister, owned a large secondhand bookstore on Crown Street called Reeve’s which served the Yale community. An alumnus of Brown and a great chess enthusiast, he was known to shutter his shop of an afternoon if a professor friend dropped by for a game.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century his great-nephew Clifford Everett Hale Whitlock came up from Fairfield County after the death of his father, a schoolmaster. By all accounts the Reverend Kingsbury was a generous, kind man. He never married or had children, and he took Clifford, no more than 12 at the time, under his wing and enrolled him in a prep school on Chapel Street. This was his first gift. Another was the opportunity to work in the bookshop, and there Clifford found his life’s calling. In an interview decades later Clifford recalled how a student had pointed out the course digests, tailored to specific classes at Yale, and offered to recruit fellow students to write more of them. Clifford knew instantly that they would be popular and lucrative.
Within a few years Kingsbury bought a secondhand book and coin shop run by one F. R. Andrews at 66 High Street, also the location of Yale bicycle storage. A few years later Clifford’s uncle retired and he may have given or sold his inventory to Clifford. It became the first Whitlock’s Book Store. Clifford was remarkably young at the time. Perhaps bookselling was in his blood; family lore has it that a Whitlock ancestor kept a bookshop in New York as early as 1820. In October 1907 William Kingsbury died, and his obituary stated that he was “known to Yale men the country over.” His store had functioned as the college bookstore for Yale, and Whitlock’s would carry on that tradition.
Soon Whitlock moved to larger quarters on Elm Street. But just before Christmas in 1905, 154 Elm Street was gutted by a fire, destroying Whitlock’s Book Store as well as other businesses in the building which was, according to an article in the Morning Journal-Courier of December 20, “a very old wooden structure.” This was only the first of three fires that would bedevil the Whitlock family, all of which occurred between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Clifford soon opened a new shop a few doors away at 219 Elm Street.
The 1910 census reveals Clifford living in New Haven’s tenth ward with his mother Ida who had moved up from Wilton, and a boarder who worked at the bookstore. The next year Clifford married Dorothy Munz. By 1916 Whitlock’s had once again outgrown its quarters. Clifford, who was proving to be a keen businessman, incorporated his store so that it was now Whitlock’s Book Store, Inc., with Clifford as president and his former boarder as vice president. The store was greatly expanded with a two-story addition paid for, at least in part, with a $75,000 loan. A note in the American Stationer in March of 1917 states that there would be a total of 20,697 square feet of shelving for books.
Clifford and Dorothy raised six sons: Everett, Reverdy, Gilbert, Manson, John, and Norman. Everett, Reverdy, and Gilbert would follow their father as booksellers. Manson, who was mechanically inclined, gained fame as a genius with typewriters; Whitlock’s had a typewriter department for years until Manson opened his own shop around the corner on York Street. John would not be involved in bookselling but studied agriculture and worked intensively on the farm during World War II. Norman, the youngest, died when a young man.
1917 was a turning point for the family, which moved from New Haven to rural Bethany, which was sparsely populated . They settled on the old Sperry Farm on Litchfield Turnpike. As a mature man, Reverdy would write lyrically of this time, and he described Bethany then as “remote and . . . forgotten by time.” While Clifford drove down the bumpy roads to his bookstore in New Haven, his farm manager and helpers worked the farm, and his children spent their days playing outside in all seasons.
The Whitlock boys’ childhood is not one that many children now experience, living in a beautiful rural setting in a large, multi-generation household. The 1920 census reveals that in addition to the nuclear family, also living in the house were Clifford’s mother, her brother Charles Hale and his wife Addie, and a nurse for the children. The census also tells us that only 411 souls lived in Bethany then.
“The farm experience during our childhood in Bethany was an earthly paradise,” Reverdy wrote. The cows, chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, the barn with a silo, and apple and peach trees were particularly vivid memories. The family, he said, lived “in virtual seclusion” but for the boys it was a happy kingdom. They explored surrounding woods and fields, drew water from a nearby crystalline spring, sledded in the winter snow. The boys could carry on conversations that were unintelligible to their elders; they invented their own language. For example, the playroom was called the Pla-Bla-Bla room. Their term for their mother was “Shah,” and later, her grandchildren would call her that too.
At night they turned to “that other fantasy world we reveled in—the world of books, read in the glow of the fireplace by the light of kerosene lamps.” The boys’ first teacher was their grandmother, who taught them in the kitchen. In the home’s library there was an abundance of books and here the boys could find classics including sets of Dickens and Thackeray. Reverdy read many of these volumes by the time he was twelve.
As the family flourished, so too did Whitlock’s Book Store, as well as Yale. The area that included Elm Street, where the bookstore was, had to make way for the magnificent Sterling Memorial Library, the cornerstone of which was laid October 11, 1928. The store relocated first to 7 Broadway, and then finally to 15 Broadway, where it would remain. In its early years it carried the usual books one would expect to find at a store catering to a university community, especially textbooks and course materials. But Clifford sold more than books. On weekends he would make trips to find valuable old manuscripts and letters, antique furniture, silver, and whatever else “collectors who were riding high on the bull market of the twenties” would buy, as Reverdy wrote. These trips were a regular outing for Clifford's mother and Aunt Addie, who would accompany him on his drives through the Connecticut countryside.
That first wonderful decade in Bethany had come to an abrupt end one night in November 1927 when a fire burned the old farmhouse to the ground. Reverdy wrote of the family standing shivering in the dark, watching as firemen up from New Haven tried in vain to save their house. Today only its ancient stone foundation remains. Land was cheap in those days, and Clifford bought and sold it through the years. He and his mother had also bought several houses in the area; one was on Sperry Road to which the family moved after the fire. That house still stands today opposite the Book Barn.
In New Haven, Whitlock’s Book Store continued to thrive -- until 1929 and the onset of the Depression. Just how severely business was affected may be inferred from the newspaper notices of auctions and bankruptcy sales. In May 1930 Clifford held an auction of antiques at his Broadway store. It is possible that some of the items offered were from his own collection, including “a carved Bible box ‘1699’.” Another auction was advertised in February 1934: “Entire stock of antiques of Whitlock’s Book Store at auction.” Finally, in July 1938 “per order of the U.S. District Court, David M. Richman, Referee in Bankruptcy of the Estate of Whitlock Book Store, Inc.,” a bankruptcy sale was held in the New Haven Post Office building, highlighting “a Connecticut Chest before 1660 appraised at $15,000 and a Society of Cincinnati certificate dated Oct 1, 1785 signed by George Washington, appraised at $1,500.” Despite the setback during this period, Clifford managed to hold on to his store.
Reverdy Whitlock had graduated Yale in 1935 and started teaching in Washington, D.C. By 1939 he returned to help his father run the New Haven store. He began buying and selling materials in areas reflecting his interest in Yale history and Connecticut history, rare books, manuscripts, letters, and maps. Everett and Gilbert also worked at the bookstore, and as mentioned above, Manson ran the typewriter department within the store. It was a close-knit family. All five sons lived in the area, most within walking distance of their parents’ house. Reverdy ultimately moved to Woodbridge. In keeping with his deep interest in local history he bought an early eighteenth-century house from Hamden and had it moved to Sperry Road, a few yards from the Book Barn, where it remains.
As the Second World War ramped up, the Whitlocks returned to farming in earnest. Gilbert was drawn to farming and put his hand to it, and John (who did not participate in the bookselling business) became an agricultural researcher, raising turkeys on the farm, as well as sheep and Hereford cows. In fact, Whitlock Farm produced so much food that John was given a military deferral so that he could continue working throughout the war years. After the war, the farming slowed, although Whitlock's was still providing Thanksgiving turkeys for local families for many years.
In the late 1940s Gilbert had a busy mail-order business selling books, many from his own collection, which included very rare books, including incunabula. He and Reverdy had been travelling to Europe -- primarily England -- to buy books since the war ended. The British were experiencing economic hard times after the war and valuable books were sold at what were for Americans extremely low prices. Still living in the family home, Gilbert stored thousands of books there. On Thanksgiving Day of 1953 the third of the devastating fires that plagued the Whitlocks burned the Sperry Road home. The family was spending the holiday at Reverdy’s house in Woodbridge. When they returned in the evening they found the Bethany Fire Department putting out the flames. The house survived, but over a thousand books were lost and, tragically, the family dog perished.
Gradually Gilbert moved about 30,000 books into the hayloft of the barn next to his parents’ house. In 1958 he and Everett opened the barn to the public and it drew many customers. They acquired so many books that they began storing them in the farm buildings across Sperry Road, and ultimately decided to move the business over there. The two small barns were remodeled with bookcases to hold over 50,000 books. The loft of the upper barn accommodated 20,000 maps. Much of the carpentry work was done by Bob Brinton Sr., who would become Bethany’s Town Historian. Whitlock’s Book Barn opened for business in May of 1961. In the early years the lower building was kept open round the clock and customers could come any time to read. If they wished to purchase a book they were instructed by a sign to leave the money in a cigar box. This arrangement proved a boon to sleepless booklovers. The playwright Arthur Miller was known to come late at night, at least once bringing his wife Marilyn Monroe.
C.E.H. Whitlock died at 94 in 1979. Reverdy kept the New Haven store going until Whitlock’s Book Store finally closed in 1996. Gilbert reported that at age 83 Reverdy “removed his operations to his home in Woodbridge, where he now sells the occasional book by mail and pursues his lifetime pleasure of writing and being a country gentleman. He still makes occasional trips to England to look for 'biblio-rarities’ and renew contacts with longtime friends in the overseas book trade.” Fittingly, Reverdy was active in the Woodbridge Historical Society. It was he who found in the attic of the nearby Thomas Darling House (1774) a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of only about 25 remaining of the 200 printed in Philadelphia during the night of July 4, 1776.
Everett and Gilbert continued to operate Whitlock’s Book Barn until their deaths. When no one in the family’s next generation wanted to run the business, the property was put up for sale in 2005 and bought by a local lawyer, Norm Pattis, who enabled the Book Barn to continue.
The rare, more valuable materials that were commonly found at Whitlock’s in decades past (eighteenth-century and older books, diaries, maps, and manuscripts) are not so abundant now. Old customers of Whitlock’s can tell of amazing things that were found at the shop; things that would now be more likely found at auction. For example, a copy of Sturmy’s Mathematical and Practical Arts that had the authenticated autograph of Hugh Baker, forage master for the Continental Army. Below his signature in the same hand was “April 29th, 1778, Camp Valley Forge”. A 1977 Hartford Courantarticle about the Book Barn notes “One can picture Baker in the critical winter in Valley Forge scavenging tidbits of knowledge from the amazing book, which contains information on everything from trigonometry to butchering animals, in his efforts to keep the army supplied and alive. The Whitlocks recently sold the book for $550.”
In 1993, Robert Gibson, a history teacher in New Haven, was quoted in the New York Times describing the materials he had found in the store that he used as primary source documents in his teaching. One was the will of a North Carolina plantation owner, which listed his property, including thirty enslaved people whom he bequeathed to his children. "As an African-American, it's a real jolt to see something like that included in an actual will," Mr. Gibson said. "But these kinds of authentic documents are a great help to me in bringing the history, as unpleasant as it was, to life in the classroom. Whitlock's makes it possible for me to do that."
Rare items still come in, though not as often as in the past. What hasn’t changed is the abundance of books at good prices and the atmosphere of the old barns and the former farm, still welcoming customers after all these years.
Whitlock's Book Barn
The Bethany Historical Society, Inc.
512 Amity Road, Bethany, Connecticut 06524, United States
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