Pages of history
A trail of breadcrumbs is all you need to enjoy a vicarious sojourn in other places and other times, right on Saratoga’s Phila Street. Just a block uphill from Hattie’s and Caffè Lena, the Lyrical Ballad is the most genuinely antique-feeling used-book shop for miles around.
Some bibliomanes may prefer bigger shops in bigger cities, but not for ambience. Unlike bookstores stacked into tall, warehousey spaces, Lyrical Ballad doesn’t tower or sprawl; it doglegs, meandering into low antechambers, hallways with steam pipes in the ceiling, tiny side rooms and grand salons, even a classic vault left over from a long-ago occupant, Saratoga National Bank. (Through the vault’s grille you can ogle valuable first editions and rarities, and a simple request will get you inside anytime you like.) With another warren of storage, mail-order, and office spaces behind the retail areas, Lyrical Ballad stretches over to the Arcade Building around the corner on Broadway. Some years ago, the shop expanded into an adjacent Phila Street storefront, but that offers none of the spelunking into Saratoga’s Victorian shop basements that makes the original space so appealing.
The shop dates back to 1971, when John DeMarco, a young SUNY-Albany grad and book collector, opened what he hoped would be a cool literary bookstore. He worked odd jobs to keep the store afloat, but soon realized the market was better for interesting used books. He studied the business and joined antiquarian booksellers’ associations, learning how to scout for rarer, or more famous, or better-preserved specimens. DeMarco and wife Jan now preside over a huge and well-regarded inventory with particular strengths in British and American history—notably Thoroughbred racing history—art and architecture, and illustrated children’s fiction. The shelf labels range from “ships and the sea” and “military” to “gardening,” “photography, and “books about books.” Most of the books aren’t rare or pricey; bargains abound. The DeMarcos also sell fine antique prints and vintage postcards and magazines. Somehow, when fielding specific customer requests, they’re able to remember and find almost any item on the premises (if not those stored off site).
Even the furnishings are historic and intriguing. Between the decorative bookends clustered along the tops of high shelving and the faded Oriental rugs underfoot, there are massive wooden shelves, glass-fronted cases, antique secretaries, and elegant curios. In front of most of these, spillover books sit in neat, knee-high piles on the floor. The air is redolent with oak, leather, rabbit glue, aged paper, and the dust of yesteryear.
John is always building new collections in the back rooms, waiting to add just the right missing pieces before moving them out to the retail shelves. Hollywood filmmakers have rented Lyrical Ballad books in order to create authentic-looking sets for historical dramas. But for Jan, a former nurse, interacting with customers is her favorite aspect of the work. “We get fascinating people coming in: writers, artists, historians…we’ve had a magician…you name it,” she says. She also enjoys the intellectual enrichment: “All these books, on every subject—it’s like a liberal-arts education.”
It’s certainly worth a side trip to two newer used-book shops in neighboring towns: Twice Told in Ballston Spa and Old Saratoga Books in Schuylerville. But Lyrical Ballad has burrowed its way deep into the history and culture of Saratoga Springs. Plenty of downtown retailers come and go quickly, but Lyrical Ballad is a mainstay, never failing to offer a literary and architectural blast from the past. —SR