Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Newton store sells well-traveled books:
Kontoleon family's shop on Auburn Street holds a collection amassed over 30

By Sarah Andrews/CNC Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

NEWTON -- It's an inventory that would make any literary historian drool.

A French thesaurus from 1757, pages yellowed but still intact. A gold-leafed volume of poetry from 1845 with a personal inscription on the inside cover. Old Civil War letters and personal diaries. Even an original copy of the now out-of-print "Arnold's Bodyshaping for Women" by Arnold Schwarzenegger, circa 1979.

But though the relatively new Auburndale shop, Old Books and Prints, doesn't profess to have every book ever written, its collection of rare and old books will impress even those with a fondness for crisp, white pages and high-gloss covers.

Located on Auburn Street, Old Books and Prints has been open for business since January and is one of the only used-book stores in Newton. While it is technically owned by former technology professional Jon Kontoleon, it is staffed by two people who call themselves "a senior citizen volunteer advisory committee" -- his parents, Jim and Jeanne Kontoleon.

The reason they work there? Well, it's their stuff.

Almost 30 years ago, the Kontoleons, who have been married for 50 years, "were looking for something to do," according to Jeanne, a former high school librarian. So they began collecting books by frequenting book auctions and yard sales.

It all started with one barn in New Hampshire. Jim, then a station manager at WGGB in Springfield, was feeling the stress of his job and its new responsibilities, which included giving on-air editorials. One weekend, the Kontoleons took a drive up to New Hampshire to get away and stumbled on a yard sale of sorts inside an old barn.

Minutes later they emerged with a bag full of old children's books (Jeanne's favorite) and the rest was history -- literally -- as the Kontoleons began to amass a giant collection of old books which they kept in a spare bedroom.

As Jim's job changed, the couple, who met at Syracuse University, moved from Massachusetts to Florida to Connecticut, each time hauling all their new collectibles. During one move from New England to Jacksonville, the load was so heavy and the streets so hot that the truck blew five tires on the way down.

"Each time we moved, it was always tremendous because we had all of our stuff and a book store," said Jeanne.

During the couple's final move, to New London, Conn., where Jim was starting up a television station, the collection was already quite serious. About three years ago, Jonathan came to visit his parents who were no longer working and decided to move them up to their present home in Oxford. Their new house even has a barn -- just for the books.

Jim and Jeanne's daughter, a Newton resident, found the Auburndale storefront recently and the Kontoleons decided to donate their collection to the store. They now not only sell their books, but also old original and hard-to-find prints and homemade greeting cards.

The difference in Jim and Jeanne's taste and preference makes for a store with a variety of merchandise, from military and medicine books, to old Life magazines and newspapers, to old Louis Prang prints.

And it's worth a visit if not just to meet the Kontoleons, who also refer to themselves as "the book gypsies." Maybe you will see Jeanne shyly roll her eyes when Jim calls her "lovely" in front of strangers. Or maybe Jim will tell you about how he was almost arrested in Medford when he threw pebbles at Jeanne's window before they were married.

"It was the kind of neighborhood where little short guys with suitcases couldn't peek in people's windows," he said.

While the Kontoleons don't actively peruse auctions and yard sales much anymore, they say they are still open to buying rare items. Currently, they have about 1,100 books in the store, with 3,000 more at home.

The store is a bit of a rarity these days, said Jon.

"The advent of book sales over the Internet and the increasing rents has forced many book stores of this type out of business," he said.

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