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.)
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.
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.