Step inside Lighthouse Books in downtown Dade City, and you might feel like you’ve entered an oversized time capsule – but one that encases memorabilia from far more than a single moment in history.
Shelves and tables inside the store display eclectic collections of books, periodicals, how-to manuals, and even vintage brochures that document humanity’s literary musings through the ages.
In a sense, Lighthouse Books is the quintessential used-book store, though most of its hand-me-downs are anything but mass-produced reprints.
Proprietor Michael Slicker reflects on that, as he handles a 1478 edition of “Commentaries on Juvenal’s Satires,” one of the oldest and rarest artifacts available for purchase at the store.
“It was used back when Columbus got here,” he quips.
Slicker is an antiquarian bookseller, one of only about 450 members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. Born in St. Petersburg, he founded his store there in 1977 and chose the name, in part, for its original location overlooking the water.
In 2019, after being twice cramped by encroaching development, he relocated Lighthouse Books to Dade City, where his daughter, Sarah Smith, had already put down roots. Together, father and daughter run the business, which includes appraisals, purchases and sales of thousands of yesteryear’s treasures.
Specialties include books chronicling Florida and Caribbean history, as well as many works related to military histories. But Lighthouse offers collectible books, maps, and print materials from all over the world and just about every time period.
“We have a niche. We don’t have to compete with all the paperback sellers,” Slicker says.
He doesn’t count online booksellers such as Amazon as competitors, either, even though most of Lighthouse’s sales these days are made online through the company’s website.
Mainstream booksellers generally don’t handle books published before the 1970s because they don’t have ISBN numbers, Slicker explains. Without those unique identifiers, book vendors can’t easily enter books into a computerized inventory system.
At Lighthouse, each of the thousands of vintage materials that enter the store’s inventory must be cataloged by hand – a task that falls mostly to Smith.
“It’s definitely something we work on constantly,” she says.
Judging books by their covers
Slicker’s expertise as an antiquarian book appraiser has been sought by universities, private collectors and estate sellers. And when it comes to antique book valuations, the old adage against judging a book by its cover doesn’t apply. Slicker notes that a book’s artwork and binding materials play a significant role in valuations, and they tell tales about the people of yesteryear, just as the written words do.
For example, take the 1854 volume titled “The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray.” As Slicker bends the Moroccan leather binding slightly and thumbs across the pages’ gilded edges, a portrait of the author against a churchyard backdrop appears. It’s a hidden flourish known as a fore-edge painting that sets the scene for the poet’s best-known poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” before the first page is turned.
Or take the American decorative binding trends of the early 20th century. Lighthouse is home to quite a few examples of books with elaborate artwork gracing the covers, usually the handiwork of women.
“Since women were kind of shut out of all the fine arts, they did these decorative bindings,” Slicker says.
Slicker’s appraisal talents have put him in touch with the past in a way that few people ever experience. For example, one of his assignments was to appraise a log book that the famous pilot Amelia Earhart carried with her on one of her transatlantic flights. To him, the entries read like letters to her parents in the event she didn’t return.
“You have to picture that she’s writing in her log as she’s soloing across the Atlantic,” Slicker says. “And she writes that there’s an 8-foot wave and her right engine is going out.”
As much as he loves books, Slicker doesn’t collect them himself. It’s not a good idea for an antiquarian bookseller to compete with his customers, he explains.
“I tell people I got into the business because of the books, but I stayed because of the people,” Slicker says. “It’s a joy when an enthusiastic person comes in and says, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for this for a long time.’”
Tina Ross, of Dade City, is just such a customer. Recently, she came to Lighthouse Books looking for a specialty craft book.
“I’m like in heaven here,” she said. “I like bookstores, but they have all the new titles everywhere — nothing juicy.”
A perfect fit
Margaret Angell, a 20-year downtown business owner who chairs the Dade City Merchants Association, says Lighthouse Books is a welcome addition to a historic commercial district that draws visitors to its antique stores, specialty shops and restaurants.
“We’re delighted to have them,” she says. “They bring a whole new element to our downtown with their historic books and maps.”
Slicker and Smith say they’ve been happy with the move.
“I think it’s definitely a more leisurely pace than we experienced in St. Petersburg,” Smith says. “People come and spend the day, and they’re glad to be out and about. … I think it’s easier to be kind when they’re less stressed.”
If you go
Lighthouse Books, ABAA
Where: 14046 Fifth St., Dade City
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
Contact: 727-822-3278 or
Calling old book lovers
What: 39th Annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair
When: April 1 to April 3
Where: The Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N., St Petersburg
Cost: Admission $10 for the entire event
By Susan Green
Published March 30, 2022