Step through the doors of Rivertown Fine Books & Antiques in McGregor and immerse yourself in the aroma of old books — difficult to describe, but adored by many, especially book lovers, who will no doubt find a piece of paradise at this family-owned-and-operated bookstore.
Owner John Malcom opened the shop 17 years ago, finding his niche in rare, scarce and specialty books in a town of a little more than 900 people.
“McGregor is a charming little town with a very interesting history,” Malcom said. “It looks very much now like it did in 1872.”
What started as a hobby — collecting books while he traveled the country in his former career as a corporate pilot — eventually became his ideal career.
Despite warnings from other booksellers against opening a shop with fewer than 125,000 books, Malcom launched Rivertown Fine Books with a handful from his personal collection — about 3,500 books. Now, 17 successful years later, he estimates he has around 40,000 books in his shop — a significant number of them rare.
“Traveling all over the country, finding bookstores, it just so happened that my favorites were those that dealt in unusual and hard-to-find books,” he said. “When it came time to take a chance on opening our own store, I wanted that to be a part of it. That’s part of the passion of the business. … It’s truly amazing what’s out there.”
While most old books are “just old books,” he continued, “it’s amazing what comes in the door now and then. We’re fortunate to have some pretty special stuff.”
Malcom didn’t want to reveal specifics, considering the value of some especially rare items, but among them are signed books, documents, early 19th and late 18th century maps, pages from books as old as the mid-1400s and more.
In the beginning, Malcom said he and his wife looked all over for inventory. Yard sales, library sales, “anywhere we could think of,” he said.
“We did that for two or three years, maybe, and advertised that we buy books and pay well for the scarce and rare,” he continued. “People starting bringing books in. … In the last 14 or 15 years, almost everything in the shop came in the front door.”
While the condition of the book is certainly a factor in its value, Malcom said scarcity is his highest priority.
And for that, people are willing to travel to get to his shop.
“The thing about people who like books is they have a few favorite bookstores and will travel long distances to them,” Malcom said. “We have a good solid local and regional clientele who always visit, and we’re fortunate to have a solid number of people who travel a long distance just to come to our shop.”
Malcom noted many newcomers stop in because a friend or family member told them about the shop.
“There are people who walk through and maybe don’t buy anything, but that never bothered me,” he said. “If the shop makes a good impression, as I believe it does, they might come back when they’re looking for books and may tell somebody and then somebody else may come. We’ve gotten calls many times over the years saying uncle Joe or cousin Ann was here and mentioned what a nice store it is.”
“My wife and I just love to come down here,” said Jon Romelton, a regular customer from Decorah, 50 miles to the northwest. “It’s therapeutic to wander around and be surrounded by books. I can’t get enough of this place.” He said he and his wife make a point to go into small, private bookstores in any town they visit, but that Rivertown Fine Books is “far and away the best.”
“It’s just a very relaxing place to come down to, due in no small part to [the owners],” Romelton said. “John and Diane are here to answer any questions and you come away impressed with the amount of knowledge and research they’ve done. … They’re so much fun to talk to, and we all have the same interests. It’s just nirvana. I’m like a kid in a candy store.”