Homage to the Book
Great books in no particular order in the barn
Two barns from New York State were rebuilt together in 1805. This former grist mill is now Eric Wilska’s wonderland of books.
You wouldn’t think that Eric Wilska is semi-retired—he’s been keeping busy in an old barn along the Williams River, tinkering and building and stacking and hauling and ruminating and creating with the tools he loves most: books. He is focused on Sunday, August 5, not because it’s his 68th birthday, which it is, but because he will open the door at 11 a.m. to what he calls his “homage to books” in his West Stockbridge barn.
Wilska compares the process of creating this annex of his Shaker Mill Books to the Watts Towers in LA—he just keeps building on it, with no set plan except to get people excited about books. “It’s not fine and neatly organized,” he says. “It’s random. We’re telling people that books are still relevant—an attention grabber to force you to look at a book.”
He loves the smell, the feel, the way that books look on shelves. That grew out of what he experienced at age 17 when he first walked into Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, a landmark that closed in 1998, near where he was born and raised. “I can still smell what it was like, the oak floors, the old department-store smell mixed with old books. That’s where I found my first John Steinbeck book.”
He reminisces as he sits in a rocking chair outside his farmhouse in Old Chatham, New York, 15 miles from West Stockbridge. He woke up early, made coffee and brought it back in bed, read the Times, the Post, the Eagle, the Maple Syrup Digest. He now looks out over his pond, taking a break from cutting out combs from his bee hives. Sadly, the bees froze over winter and he estimates he’ll bottle some 70 pounds of honey for gifts.
He calls himself a gentleman farmer, living in a home his grandparents settled after moving from Finland. “One of the things we learned on the farm is that we don’t raise expectations,” he says. He does raise chickens and produces 100 gallons of maple syrup a year at his Sticky Fingers Farm.
Since he and his wife Ev sold the Bookloft in Great Barrington after a 42-year run, they have been able to visit their three daughters in Denver more often. But books are in his blood, and he opened Shaker Mill Books five years ago, what he calls “more of a creative endeavor than a lot of work.” He sells used and rare books, has two part-time employees, is opens from 11 to 5 or so seven days a week.
When he bought this commercial property on Depot Street from Henry Baldwin, part of the package was this old barn. It was packed with antiques, and prior to buying it, Wilska asked the town inspector if he could take it down. “He said, ‘I can’t stop you, but you won’t have any friends if you did.’”
Wilska realized it was the best part of the buy after the antiques were emptied. “It’s crooked, but it’s solid,” he says. He got a dumpster, broom-cleaned hundreds of years of dust and dirt, put on a new roof, and filled every square foot of its four floors with books, some 50,000 of them. He loves acquiring books from private libraries, estate sales, and public libraries. What does he do with the ones he doesn’t keep? He donates them to libraries and tosses some out. (“I tell people all things die, even books.”)
He’s using some to create furniture and other bits in the barn—shelves out of aged Brittanicas; lamps from old decorative books; even the bathroom door is a giant cover of Virgina Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own. A sales counter was constructed from a wide assortment of books pieced together based on size, color, and shape, a design his son-in-law Anthony D’Aniello created. Wilska recently bought 640 of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country in hardcover, book architecture fodder to build a table that will be used to display books for sale.
Bookbinder Ken Gilbert will be on hand in the barn on opening day and on weekends. (Barn hours are 11-5 Fridays to Sundays.) Author Simon Winchester will have a talk September 14, and other events are in the works. Next summer, a juried exhibit of art made with books and a unique bookshelf contest are planned.
“It’s limitless what we can do here,” says Wilska, who is creating a sign to hang in plain view when people walk in. It will read, “Great books in no particular order in a great old building.”
The literary adventure continues outdoors:
A browsing shed is where you find used books for $1 to $3.