Rail Buff Makes Hobby Pay Off
Need a Silver Pass? He Has a Few
By Sheila Wolfe
Owen Davies said it matter-of-factly. Some people read railroad timetables like others read Playboy magazine.
That’s what the man said.
Davies himself admits to being hooked. If he scans one page of tables in the Official Guide to the Railways of the United States and Canada, he cannot stop.
Something like trying to eat one potato chip.
“I can spend several hours poring over the guide, so engrossed I am unable to put it down,” he said.
Railroad time tables are only one of Davies’ weaknesses. Actually, he is just as partial, if not more so, to railroad passes– the kind which the old railroad barons used to hand out, with a flourish, to each other.
One gaudy fellow, the owner of several railroads in Colorado, issued his passes on paper, buckskin, and silver. Davies once had a fancy solid silver one made out to Jay Gould.
Davies paid $100 for it “just because I wanted it.” But a week later he sold it for $125 to a fellow who never owned a railroad but wrote about and rode them a lot– the late Lucius Bebee.
The transaction, tho hardly anticipated by Davies, was really what the business of railroad time tables, passes, and other Davies collections is all about. It’s business. And then again, it’s genuine, deep down, sheer unadulterated pleasure.
Some Are Too Prized
You can feel that when you walk into the chock-full “casual” (his own description) Owen Davies Bookstore, 1214 N. LaSalle st. Some items are too prized ever to be sold– such as a personal collection of Colorado annual passes, 1880s to 1920s.
But some that are for sale are not likely to move either, Davies has surmised. He is not sure of the exact count, tho it is obvious he has several thousand passes from 600 to 700 railroads.
“I have been fascinated by them,” Davies related. “I’ll never get my money back. I bought too many. I’m just greedy.”
It’s the same way with books. The little shop is divided into three sections. The cluttered first room contains 3,000 books about ships and the sea. The crowded middle room houses 1,500 to 2,000 books about airplanes and 700 to 800 about automobiles, and the jammed third room has about 5,000 railroad books and pamphlets, 15,000 time tables, and the passes.
Likened to “Disease”
“Buying books is a disease, like alcohol or dope,” Davies reflected. “You may take the pledge, but you never really shake it.”
So Davies, admittedly addicted, strays sometimes from his field of transportation. That is why he has, upstairs, a “department of utter chaos,” a room full of books totally unrelated to his business specialty but acquired in spite of that.
Davies, 56, figures he has been a bookseller longer than most others in the city. He opened his first shop when he was 18. That was after he had quit school to work for his widowed mother in her gift shop and rental library.
“I persuaded her to sell her Insull stock and give me $3,000,” Davies recalled. “I didn’t have the experience or the books but I took over a shop at 1352 N. Clark st.
Had Courage of Youth
“What does an 18-year-old know? I had nerve. I was fearless. I wouldn’t have the courage today.”
Books, Davies said, were “just something I gravitated to.” He had always been a reader. So where else would you expect him to meet his wife, Dorothy, but in the public library? Married in 1931, they have twin sons, Jordan and Bevan, 25.
Davies did not begin his pursuit of transportation until the late 1930s, when he had a store at 346 N. Clark st. He bought a “big bunch” of time tables, pre-1900, and shortly afterward, “another bunch” of Pacific railroad pamphlets, around 1860.
From then on, customers kept asking and Davies kept providing railroad material. When he went into war factory work in 1944, he sold his entire stock of 30,000 volumes, but kept all the railroad books. That provided the nucleus for the future.
Has Only One Fear
Now, he says, his stock is unique in Chicago and can be matched by only one other bookstore in the United States (in Carson City, Nev.).
Davies does not concern himself much with the reasons why so many people are devoted to railroad lore.
“It’s not complex,” he said. “There are so many simple things.”
Editor’s Note: This makes a “baker’s dozen” of posts this month. We are grateful to have received over 12,000 page views in June, a new record for us. Trolley Dodger Press has made one of the public domain books that Davies reprinted available once again on a DVD data disc that you can read on any computer with Adobe Acrobat Reader installed. It’s paired with another vintage book put out by the old Chicago Tunnel Company, and also includes a tribute to Owen Davies. You will find that in our online store.