Walking into Marc Ramsey’s Civil War bookshop, Owens & Ramsey, was like walking into my dream library. Stacks and stacks and shelves and shelves of Civil War books ran the length of the shop, with more shelves lining the walls. If I had this kind of book collection, my wife would shoot me with a Spencer repeating rifle—all seven rounds—but that doesn’t stop me from wishing I had this kind of collection.
Located in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, Owens & Ramsey serves as the hub for Marc Ramsey’s extensive book-dealing adventures. Collectors are just as apt to find him at most major Civil War shows and conferences, where he takes carefully curated selections of his collections and sets up shop.
“I’m going to Georgia next week, and all these crates will go out into our Ford 150 longbed with a camper shell on it,” he explains, “and we’ll also fill up ten boxes of books and folding shelves, and off I’ll head to northwest Georgia, to the mountains. Chickamauga country.”
The crates he refers to are stackable and portable, and they sit atop the fixed rows of shelves that run down the middle of the shop. “How many of these boxes will fit in your truck?” I ask.
“I can fit 31. We’re taking 30 now. So there’s 30 crates, an additional ten watertight boxes and shelves, and boxes of other stuff—you know, table skirts and everything. We’re also doing a smaller set up for some of the smaller venues. Bridgewater College has a great little conference. But it’s small. I don’t need to take the whole thing. So—and I just did this with Marietta, Georgia—we have the compact configuration, where I take twelve of these crates and put them in my Jeep—because I love that Jeep. It just cruises really nice. In good and bad weather. So I make it easy on ourselves, and we do as much business that way.
“So this is our experiment in the last two years—this is not as overwhelming.”
I had the opportunity to spend a couple hours browsing Marc’s shop—and serious book collectors could spend far more time than that if they have the time. Over the course of my visit, we talked about books, the Civil War, Civil War books, and much, much more. Marc is a warm, loquacious host, eager to talk about shared passions.
Over the next few days at ECW, I’ll share my conversation with Marc.
As he explained, collectors don’t necessarily have to come to 2728 Tinsley Drive in North Chesterfield, in suburban Richmond, to sample the shop’s extensive offerings. Once or twice a month, he’s on the road to various Civil War shows and conferences.
“When you come to our shows, you’ll see four or five tables and this wall of books,” Marc says. “And for some people, it’s kind of confusing, you know? So for the smaller ones, we take what we think of as our best books. Navy. Union—(he points) we have that stack of three crates right there.
“And then there’s always somebody who wants something other than Civil War, so we have a crate of general military, World War I, World War II. Women’s books are popular. And then we put the oversize books up on top—and our lamps. The lamps have helped. We did a show a couple years ago up in Maryland where it was so dark, and I came back and said, ‘We’ve gotta have lights. We’ve gotta add lights to the configuration.’ My darling wife, Jill, who’s a professional shopper, said, ‘Ah! Walmart. $7.50 each, goosenecks.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ So off we went to Walmart and got the lights, a whole battery of lights, and we’ve since added to them. She knew right where to go.”
Atop one of the crates is the shop’s cat, Star. “The amazing shooting Star,” Marc calls her, explaining that she jumps from the top of one row of books to another. He photographed her mid-jump once and won a contest with the photo.
His books are stars of a sort, too.
“I don’t know if you saw the movie Field of Lost shoes, about the VMI cadets,” he says. “There were three scenes in the headmaster’s office. Behind him were Owens and Ramsey books! They actually rented them from us.”
“Your books are movie stars,” I joke. Marc laughs.
“A movie company came to town a number of years ago,” he said. “The film office downtown will steer you in our direction if you want to rent—but these guys heard about us and wanted books that they could actually buy and destroy. And talking to them, I asked, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ ‘We’re doing a film about an attempted assassination on a president, and there’s going to be a scene in the Oval Office with a machine gun, so we’re actually going to shoot the books.’ So I was, like, ‘Oh, I have a bunch of old medical textbooks and things that I had gotten as part of collections and were all dusty and everything.’ But it was so weird, Chris. As I was pulling them off the shelf I realized I was sending them to their doom! You know? ‘Goodbye!’ (laughs) When you love books, it’s kind of hard!”
As he shows me around the shop, we pass a shelf of paperbacks. “Paperbacks,” Marc says, somewhat wistfully. “Pretty paperbacks.”
We pass by the bargain books and then over to general military. “World War II,” he says, cataloguing aloud. “World War I, which is hard for me to keep in stock these days—I’m selling as many World War I books as I can get my hands on. All of a sudden, people discovered World War I.”
We finally settle in behind his desk, where Star initially joins us. Maps, fliers, and artwork adorn the walls while classical music lulls us in the background.
It’s time to talk books.
Tomorrow, as Chris continues his conversation, Marc offers more detail about operating a Civil War book shop and how he got hooked on the Civil War in the first place.