Terrace Horticultural Books, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is one of the largest North American sellers of used and rare garden related books. You might say it all started in the garden.
AbeBooks spoke to Terrace Horticultural Books' owner, Kent Petterson, about how his love for gardening blossomed into a fruitful bookselling business.
How did you get started in bookselling?
During a time prior to 1991 when my wife, Abby, was completing her doctoral program, I had time for other interests when she wasn’t available. Having been a backyard gardener and master gardener for many years I began to sell some of my extra books at gardening events and at our home. After a series of locations such as antique stores, a local book co-op and a warehouse location, we settled at our showroom location, 503 St. Clair Ave. in Saint Paul.
Tell us more about your store.
We bought the building we call our showrooms for the bookstore in September 2000. It is a duplex home in a residential neighborhood, but on a major Saint Paul street. Our business has been primarily internet based since the early days of AbeBooks. After too many years of working two jobs, it became financially possible and clear that the book business needed my full attention. Our recent move to become a full time book dealer has allowed us to be at the showrooms M-F, 9-5PM by chance. We say by chance and request people call ahead. Except for trips to the bank, visiting clients or maybe a vacation, we are open for business. We know an open shop is contrary to current trend, but feel our destination concept will be welcomed. The showrooms occupy the lower level and our daughter Hilary and husband Michael live upstairs. Their dog Stella comes down for a daily visit before her walk. Smerlie the cat at home has expressed her interest to visit the showroom many times. She inspects every box of books I happen to bring home but always chickens out when it’s time to go.
Has anyone famous visited your store lately?
We were delighted to welcome Martha Stewart to our showrooms last November. While in town on her own promotional tour, we were able to inform her of Terrace Horticultural Books and she sought out our store to visit. She along with three staff spent an hour shopping our selection of garden books.
What projects are you currently working on at the shop?
We have created a new landscaped exterior to Terrace Horticultural Books. Our wish is to offer customers a bookstore that is a destination for those who love not only books but also gardens and everything related. We stock artifacts of gardening, ephemera, seed packets, botanical prints, catalogs, periodicals and over 15,000 books. After major landscaping this spring, we are currently finishing the project with three new mixed planted border beds. The landscape installation is based on a comprehensive plan by local landscape designer Eric Olson. Our brick house with an old-fashioned porch and cottage type garden landscape offers a charming setting for our clean and tasteful bookstore display. A comfortable reading room and places for by appointment ‘Tea at Terrace’ inside or outside in the garden complement the destination experience.
At the bookshelves, we are updating our database entries using our wireless laptop. Order fulfillment at AbeBooks is enhanced by complete accurate book data based on accepted book description standards. We at the same time are adding shelf locator information and updated pricing. All, while not moving the book away from the shelf. We have felt from the very beginning that complete book descriptions make the selling process more efficient for the customer and Terrace Horticultural Books.
What do you love most about the bookselling business?
We love books for how they improve, inform, and beautify our lives. We love meeting people with book interests, traveling to find and sell books, and generally associating with people who love books and especially those who also love plants. We enjoy every minute of it.
What else do you collect?
We collect plants in the garden and antiques in the house at home.
What are your favorite plants?
Our cottage gardens include an area of dwarf conifers and ornamental grasses. We love the shapes and colors of smaller conifers. One of our new favorites is a dwarf conifer called Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’. We also love growing plants in pots and window boxes. Any creative combination of trailing, bulbous, foliage or edible plants with mixed annuals or perennials creates a lot of interest.
What is the most unusual book you ever bought?
Our friend Ken Storm Jr. has traveled and explored many parts of the world. One of his adventures involved the idea of finding the hidden and possibly the world’s tallest waterfalls along the Tsangpo River. This was also a goal of plant explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward who highlighted the search in his book Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges (1926). It was thought that the highest waterfalls existed along inaccessible areas of the Tsangpo River flowing out of the Himalaya Mountains of SE Asia. Kingdon-Ward never solved the 'Riddle' but Storm with his fellow travelers did in 1998. Kingdon-Ward’s long out of print book was reintroduced with additions by Storm and others in 2001 and published by Antique Collectors Club. Though again out of print, the book is still available on AbeBooks. It was our pleasure to obtain a copy of this book from Ken Storm with his signature and the added signatures of all of K-W's living relatives that were gathered in honor of the book release in 2001. Included in the signatures is that of Jean Kingdon-Ward, Frank's surviving wife.
What gardening books do you recommend?
We especially recommend books and authors out of the 'Golden Age of (American) Gardening' from around 1890-1940. Most of the best writers about gardening have emerged during the 20th century; authors such as Celia Thaxter, Alice Morse Earle, Mrs. Francis (Louisa) King, Helena Rutherford Ely, Gladys Tabor, L. B. Wilder, Richardson Wright along with contemporary English writers William Robinson, Reginald Farrer, Gertrude Jekyll and many others. More recent authors to watch include Elizabeth Lawrence, Tasha Tudor, Charles Elliott, Beth Chatto, Sidney Eddison and Allen Lacy. Customers interested in more than the basics of gardening prefer books on garden history and design, plant exploration and a category I call garden writing, which offers a more literate read. A book just recently published and not receiving enough attention is A Rage For Rock Gardening: The story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer & Plant Collector by Nicola Shulman.
(Please see the side bar for additional recommendations.)
What is your rarest gardening book?
We recently had a professional binder restore our two-volume set in slipcase of one of the more important books in the history of horticulture. The Families of Plants (pictured at right) by Carl Linnaeus is the English language edition of his seminal work defining the binomial system of plant naming. First published as Genera Plantarum it was translated into English by Johann Reichard and published in 1787 by A Botanical Society, founded by Erasmus Darwin at Litchfield ( England). Our copy is offered on AbeBooks for $925.00.
What tips do you have for people looking to build their gardening book collection?
Our personal budget has never allowed for serious consideration of books from the 18th century and earlier. Fortunately, the best of garden writing has occurred in the 19th, 20th and now 21st century. The first significant book (Bernard McMahon’s American Gardener’s Calendar, 1806) written in America for the American gardener market was published just two hundred years ago. Color plate books from the ‘Golden Age of Illustration 1750-1850 are of course collectible. They, however, have become scarce or unobtainable and prohibitive for most budgets.
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For customers we recommend three book types for gardeners beginning their book collection:
For those wishing to expand their collection, we would agree with the usual recommendation to collect what you love. If that happened to be focused on a particular plant, person, or book construction, and is also illustrated, the collector would probably have more success financially in the end.
For book collectors, we would suggest those written in the time frame of 1890-1940 mentioned previously as The Golden Age of Gardening.
- An encyclopedia such as Taylor’s or Wymann for basic word reference.
- An introductory botany book for expanded explanation of words and concepts.
- A basic illustrated ‘how to garden’ book that covers a wide range of topics including propagation and disease/insect control.
For everyone, but especially those with a less restrained budget, we would recommend buying the best condition copy available. A book that is signed or has provenance is preferred. As Nicolas Basbanes titled it, collecting is a "gentle madness" we can all love and pursue.