“I grew up on a New England farm,” Wood explains. “We never threw away anything.” And while Wood is the accumulator or buyer, DeWolfe is busy trying to sell it all. Of course this isn’t possible. There’s too much. So while there are 35,000 books online and around 100,000 in the store, they give about 10,000 titles to libraries annually for their book sales. Occasionally they will hold $1 sales where all of their lower priced items are marked down to a dollar. Other material is taken to flea markets. And some material has to be thrown out, a fact of life even Frank Wood has come to accept.
While DeWolfe and Wood handle anything that is printed, you can’t talk about the business for long without coming around to the Shakers. Both worked in Shaker museums when they were younger. Scott DeWolfe started collecting Shaker material when he was twelve. His wife has written a book about an anti-Shaker crusader. And Alfred was once home to a large Shaker community.
First we need to digress a bit for those not familiar with the Shakers, or for those who know them only as makers of very utilitarian and very expensive furniture. The Shakers, earlier known as the “Shaking Quakers” and officially as “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing,” came to America as a small group in 1774. Lead by Mother Ann with her eight followers, they practiced an austere, communal lifestyle, punctuated by an ecstatic type of worship from which they were given the name “Shakers.” It is not our aim to go into their theological beliefs, other than to say they varied significantly from other branches of Christianity. Perhaps most notable was their feminist side. In a male-dominated world, women were every bit their equal in the Shaker community, a natural consequence of their belief that Christ’s second coming was as a woman.
Their simple, communal lifestyle appealed to many two centuries ago, and the Shakers at one time grew to as many as eighteen communities. They spread as far as Ohio, Kentucky, a little while in Indiana (then far west) and even Florida. An African-American community of Shakers existed in Philadelphia for about twenty years. Membership reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century. However, communal lifestyles generally have limited appeal, at least in America, and old-fashioned no-nonsense hard work is not that appealing either, particularly in a world busily developing new creature comforts. Add to this the doctrine of celibacy, never helpful for increasing membership, and you don’t have a society optimized for survival. Much of the story of the Shakers in the 20th Century is that of their decline and near demise.