Owen Davies, Bookseller Extraordinaire

Owen Davies in 1951.

Owen Davies in 1951.

A typical Owen Davies Bookseller advertisement, from the February 1, 1970 Chicago Tribune.

A typical Owen Davies Bookseller advertisement, from the February 1, 1970 Chicago Tribune.

Ask any Chicago-area railfan “of a certain age” about the late Owen Davies and his bookstore, and you are bound to hear tales of a marvelous cave-like place, packed from floor to ceiling with books and railroadiana of all conceivable types.  Owen Davies himself (real name David Owen Davies) lived from 1910 to 1968, although in one form or another, his shop continued on for another 25 years.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I don’t think my dad ever met a book store that he did not like, and in my childhood years, he took me to all sorts as he rummaged around looking for postcards, old newspapers, books, magazines, and what-not.  It’s very possible I went in the Owen Davies shop at 1214 N. LaSalle, which was located in what some have described as a “ramshackle” old townhouse (however, one now valued at $1.6m).  I am quite certain I visited it after it later moved to Oak Park.

There was a time when the Chicago area was simply littered with used book stores.  Before there was such a thing as the World Wide Web, if you wanted to buy a book, and it was out of print, chances are the only way to find it was to make the rounds of as many shops as you could find, scouring multitudes of shelves, getting your fingers dirty.  If you were lucky enough to find what you were looking for, you had to pay what the shop keeper was asking.  Nowadays, you can find just about any book you want in seconds via the Internet, and can choose between multiple sellers and their various prices.  We have it easy today in that respect.

How did David O. Davies become Owen Davies?  Well, there is an intriguing literary allusion.  In the novel Beatrice by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), first published in 1890, there is a character named Owen Davies, who is described as having one of the best libraries in Wales, and “gave orders to a London bookseller to forward him every new book of importance that appeared in certain classes of literature.”

Coincidence?  Maybe.  But it’s possible that David Davies decided that Owen Davies was a more appropriate name for a bookseller, and one who would practically corner the market in railroad books.  (Another possibility, of course, is he simply did not like the first name he was given, and adopted his middle name instead, like James Paul McCartney and many other people.)

The Chicago Tribune’s Will Leonard profiled Owen Davies in his Tower Ticker column on August 10, 1951:

Half Minutes With Handy Merchants:  Do you need a Chicago street car transfer good for a ride only on March 9, 1908?  Or an 1892 timetable for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad?  Or an annual pass good for all trains on the long abandoned Nevada County Narrow Gauge?  Or a share of stock in the defunct Waterville & Wiscasset?  Or a copy of Bradshaw’s European railway guide for 1886?  The man to see is Owen Davies, a bookseller who caters almost exclusively to the demented desires of that quaint and colorful character, the rail fan.

Davies’ shop occupies the parlor and dining room of the house at 1214 N. LaSalle st., which back in the ’90s was the home of Henry L. Regensburg, grocer and society figure.  Today the walls are lined with volumes narrating the history of the iron horse, the corporate complications of individual lines, the biographies of the Goulds and Fisks and Vanderbilts and lesser leaders.  For decoration there are ancient travel posters, photos of vanished interurban lines zipping thru rights-of-way long since buried in woods, obsolete maps, handsomely engraved and utterly worthless stock certificates.

Did we say utterly worthless?  This litter is prized by the precisians who comprise Davies’ mailing list.  A transfer issued by a conductor on a Chicago cable car 45 or 50 years ago is worth 10 cents.  The going price for annual passes is about a dollar, the Davies recently sold an 1858 pass good on the Galena & Chicago Union, predecessor of the Chicago & Northwestern, for $5.  Timetables of the ’20s are worth a dollar or more; those of the ’80s and ’90s may range as high as $7.50 or $10.  Next time you clean out the attic, take a second look at anything even remotely suggesting a former association with a railroad.  Davies can find somebody to buy it.

He rides the trains himself, sheds a tear whenever a propane bus nudges another trolley line into oblivion, takes his kids on rail fan trips around belt lines in the Chicago area, and tries to convince them the horseless carriage isn’t really here to stay.  Every month Davies gets out a catalog filled with warm nostalgia over the halcyon era of lines that have known better days, cold statistics about the rolling stock of railways on every continent, and prices no one but a collector of railroadiana would believe.

Once Davies published a volume himself.  It bore the descriptive tho not dashing title: “Interurban Cars Operating in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan During the Year 1906.”  It contained floor plans, side elevations and tables of dimensions of 22 cars whose trolleys used to hum along the Ft. Wayne, Van Wert & Lima, the Scioto Valley, the Dayton, Covington and Piqua, and the Cincinnati, Milford and Loveland.  Rail fans who have yet to shave bought almost as many copies as did Ohioans and Hoosiers who were voting in 1906.

Davies was 41 years old when this profile appeared, but he had been in the book business for many years.  How did he amass such a great collection at such a young age?  It appears he grew up in it.

David Owen Davies was Chicago born and bred, although his parents were immigrants who spoke German.  They divorced, and his mother Gisella (1875-1957) appears to have started the business that eventually became the used book store.  In 1919, there is a record that she ran a stationary store in Chicago, and the 1930 census indicates they were running a bookstore together.  Owen and Dorothy were married in 1931 and she too became active in the business.

Davies was drafted into the military in 1944, and ran a sale to liquidate some of his inventory at that time.  His shop was then located at 346 N. Clark.  Perhaps he set up shop at 1214 N. LaSalle after the war.

Where did he get his stock?  Anywhere and everywhere, I would imagine.  Advertising helped.  Davies ran regular ads in newspapers and magazines looking for this type of material.  I am sure that, over time, his reputation was large, and people came to him when they had things to sell.

In this pre-Internet era, the catalogs Davies sent out monthly extended the range of his work both nationally, and most likely, internationally.  He also published perhaps half a dozen books himself.  Some were reprints of public domain material, and some were original.

As Fred W. Frailey wrote in 1997:

The bookstore was located in a townhouse on North LaSalle Street in Chicago. I first visited it within a week of moving to Chicago in 1966 and came to know Owen and Dorothy Davies well. The selection of new and old books, public and employee timetables and odds and ends was beyond belief. Occasionally I persuaded Owen to take me to ANOTHER townhouse on North Clark Street that housed his overflow stock and I would frantically search for things to buy while Owen patiently waited.

He was a fine, gentle man and there is nobody I knew then I’d rather have given my money to. I last spoke with Owen about 1970 (Editor’s note: 1968), at a meeting of timetable collectors in downtown Chicago. A day later he was dead of a heart attack. Dorothy Davies still ran the store when I moved to Washington DC in 1974. Five or six years ago I called the store at its Oak Park locale and Doug Wornom, an employee of Owen and later of Dorothy, answered and I recall that Doug said he ran the place.

In my long life I’ve never found the equal of that store for the kind of thing I enjoy–timetables, operations information, little odds and ends. It was within walking distance of the newspaper I worked at in Chicago and a week didn’t go by that I didn’t climb those steps, knowing that if I opened enough boxes I would surely find something I simply had to call my own. The closest I’ve ever found to it is a place on lower Broadway in New York City that is open by appointment only, it seems. As soon as I send this note onward I will remember its name. . .

Alan Follett adds:

Owen Davies died of a heart attack while he and his wife Dorothy were driving home from the first annual convention of the National Association of Timetable Collectors, which was held at the Essex Inn at 11th and Michigan.

After Owen’s death, Douglas C. Wornom was brought in as manager, and for some years ran the business, first at the LaSalle Street townhouse, and later from a location in Oak Park.  I’m not clear on whether he ever actually acquired an ownership interest in the bookstore.

After Owen Davies’ death in 1968, his wife continued to run the shop until about 1980, when it was moved to 200 W. Harrison in Oak Park.  The store was bought by author Thomas R. Bullard (1944-93), co-author of CERA Bulletin #137, Faster Than the Limiteds (along with William Shapotkin).  Dorothy Davies died in 1989 at the age of 79.

With Bullard’s untimely passing, the store closed, and its remaining stock, already much smaller than at the Chicago location, was dispersed.  The Owen Davies book store is gone more than 20 years now, but it certainly has not been forgotten.

The legacy of Owen Davies lives on in the hearts and minds of all railfans and all lovers of books and used book stores, everywhere.  We salute him.

-David Sadowski

PS- As an example of the dedication of Davies, his employees, and successors, here is a letter written by longtime Oak Park railfan Charles Stats after Bullard died in 1993.

Here also are some additional reminiscences of Owen Davies and his store on the Classic Trains magazine web site.

In 1967, Owen Davies reprinted a short book called Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations, first published in 1913. In tribute to Owen Davies, we have digitized this, along with a 1928 publication of the Chicago Tunnel Company. Both are available on DVD data disc in our online store.

The townhouse at 1214 N. LaSalle as it looks today.

The townhouse at 1214 N. LaSalle as it looks today.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

An Owen Davies flyer for one of his publications, 1963.

An Owen Davies flyer for one of his publications, 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

Owen Davies published this reprint in 1967, a year before his untimely death at the age of 58.

Owen Davies published this reprint in 1967, a year before his untimely death at the age of 58.

The Index to the 1913 book Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations.

The Index to the 1913 book Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations.

The building at 200 W. Harrison in Oak Park as it looks today. This was the home of the Owen Davies, Bookseller shop from 1980 to 1993.

The building at 200 W. Harrison in Oak Park as it looks today. This was the home of the Owen Davies, Bookseller shop from 1980 to 1993.

19 thoughts on “Owen Davies, Bookseller Extraordinaire

  1. “The closest I’ve ever found to it is a place on lower Broadway in New York City that is open by appointment only, it seems. As soon as I send this note onward I will remember its name. . .”
    Could have been Arnold Joseph, who advertised for many years in the railfan magazines.
    I visited him at his lower Broadway office while on a business trip to NYC in c1990.
    Very nice guy. His office was filled with shelves full of railroadiana and magazines.
    I bought a bunch of magazines that he shipped home for me.

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    • Doug Wornom was still selling timetables and other railroad paper at CERA and Chicago-area railroad shows until a few years ago. As with Owen Davies, he was one of the go-to guys for rare material.

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  2. I’m so glad you wrote this; I was a young teen when I first visited the Owen Davies store on the north side – it soon became a regular destination, and a sink for some of the money I earned in my high school job. The store was one of the first place where I could actually see with my own eyes a lot of railroadiana (mostly timetables) that I had previously only imagined. And yes, some of those goodies came home with me after the end of an afternoon “banging the boxes” where the timetables were kept.

    Both Dorothy Davies and Tom Bullard (and the other man who worked there who was also named Tom) befriended me, and before long I was permitted into the “inner sanctum” up two flights of rickety stairs from the main level.

    Doug Wornom had a falling out with the Owen Davies business. I’ve heard stories as to the nature of the falling out, but I’ll omit it since it’s hearsay.

    I was sad when Dorothy announced her retirement and the store’s move from North La Salle to Oak Park, but I visited there a few times before Tom Bullard’s untimely passing.

    The author is absolutely right; there was no place quite like Owen Davies, Bookseller.

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  3. Also, the New York railroadiana dealer you mention was almost surely Arnold B. Joseph’s store on an upper floor of a non-descript building at 1140 Broadway (near 26th Street) in Manhattan.

    I was a regular correspondent with Arnold, and he was a gem too. Back in the days before email, all my correspondence with him was conducted by letter, and I certainly remember his almost illegible scrawls in reply to my inquiries. One of the amazing things about Arnold was that his prices were beyond reasonable, especially considering typical prices for the Northeast. Arnold priced his items with complete indifference to what some of the other railroadiana dealers were asking.

    Arnold came out to the midwest a few times and a mutual friend and I spent a day with him at the Illinois Railroad Museum. I visited his store in New York once; it was very much like him – a bit disorganized and chaotic, but packed to the rafters with an unbelievable array of interesting stuff. And amazingly, Arnold had an immense knowledge about almost every item in his store.

    Arnold B. Joseph died on Christmas Day 2000.

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  4. In the mid-sixties I was living in Milwaukee and recall taking the train (C&NW) to Chicago in a quest to buy CERA Bulletins 106 (Interurban to Milwaukee) and 107 (Route of the Electroliners). I can’t recall the the exact details but perhaps I had been given the address of a Chicago dealer by a Milwaukee bookseller. On arrival in the loop I made my way to the State St. subway and took a Howard Steet train to a near northside station and made my way to the booksellers shop.

    After reading your article on Owen Davies my memory was jogged into the reality that it may well have been Mr. Davies’ shop that I visited and purchased bulletins 106 and 107. It all fits as his shop at 1214 N. La Salle St. was a block from the Division-Chicago CTA subway station. I really think that’s where I had gone, again thanks for your tribute to Mr. Davies.

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  5. One correction: Former Davies employee Tom Bullard, not Doug Wornom, was the principal involved in the Oak Park establishment after the Owen Davies shop left north La Salle Street circa 1980. Wornom and the Davies had parted company long prior to that change.

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  6. Started going to this store on LaSalle in the 60s and to when the Oak Park store closed in 1993. What a shame, the store was loaded with everything transportation, but big in Traction. I would peruse in there for hours and leave with purchases larger than expected. Half of my collection is from there. After moving to Florida, I would visit Chicago a few times a year and prior to visiting relatives & friends, I would immediately after landing (AM flights), get my car rental, then make the rounds of my favorite places: Chicagoland, Hills, DesPlaines hobbies then to Owen Davies.

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  7. I remember making that quaint shop on La Salle a regular when Owen was alive. Even after his untimely passing I still visited the store often talking to Dorothy. One thing I did not see so far was the grey cat that was all over the place. It added that special touch of warmth . I am not going to get into Doug Worman at this time as I would rather focus on the store and Owen and Dorothy. The bulk of my library came from that shop. The memories linger or to put it bluntly: the store may be long gone but it remains a part of me forever.

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    • It has now gone full circle as downsizing is a must when one moves into a one bedroom apartment. I am now in the process of a massive inventory that includes many treasures from that marvelous store on La Salle. I will keep some of my collection, of course, but the rest will either be sold or donated to Seashore Trolley Museum as time passes. Despite my young age Owen always treated me with the utmost respect and sometimes there was a special book he would show me – perhaps the latest first edition of a Beebe morsel. He wasn’t merely some dealer of books but someone who both enjoyed and loved what he was doing.

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  8. I first visited Owen Davies, Bookseller in 1965 or ’66 on a family trip to Chicago. I bought a 1923 Rock Island timetable. I tried to make a trip there every time I visited Chicago. I’d call him from one of the Chicago stations, and he’d tell me which bus to take to get to his store. I even dragged my wife there on the last leg of our 1973 honeymoon. We had the day in Chicago between Amtrak’s Broadway Limited and the Quad City Rocket. The store had some left-wing memorabilia as well. Quite a few people remember a picture of Lenin among the raliroadiana. Right now I’m working on a mystery-romance set in 1959. My protagonist calls himself Gershom Davies, from Moses’ son (“And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land”) and Owen Davies, Bookseller.

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  9. When I was 14 years old I discovered employees’ timetables and subsequently became addicted to them. David P. Morgan, editor of Trains Magazine (and another friend to a young railroader) recommended Owen Davies’ bookstore for B&O employees’ timetables.

    I wrote and received a glorious list of old B&O timetables, most for the grand sum of $1.25! Even that was a pretty piece of change to a 14-year-old in 1961, so I began writing to B&O division superintendents, asking them for timetables and whining that otherwise I’d have to pay $1.25 for one from “a bookstore in Chicago”. For the most part that worked! But in my collection are still many timetables with Owen’s faint pencil marking on the cover: “1.25/’stock number'”.

    In 1975 my Beautiful Helen and I stopped at Owen Davies’ on our way home from our honeymoon on my Amtrak pass (I worked for the Missouri Pacific then), and she marveled that one place could have so much in the way of railroad books and timetables.

    I’d give my left “arm” to walk in the door and up the steps into Owen Davies’ Bookstore once again!

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  10. If I can narrow down my fond memories of Chicago it would have to be Owen Davies and the one and only Studs Terkel who kept a genuine brass spittoon by his cluttered desk at WFMT. Both were the spirit of Chicago.

    Take it easy but take it.

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