Barn fire in Bucks County destroys 30,000 books

Posted: August 01, 2008

In 50 years of book collecting, Ben Cavanaugh amassed everything from the rare to the ubiquitous.

For every first-edition John Steinbeck there were dozens of Tom Clancy military thrillers stored in bookcase after bookcase in Cavanaugh's 1740s stone barn.

The years of hard but joyful work turned to charred paper Tuesday, and all Cavanaugh and his wife, Peg, could do was watch. A fire destroyed the couple's collection of 30,000 books, and along with it, the Internet book-selling business that grew out of a beloved hobby.

"I was horrified, and I got the shakes," said Cavanaugh, 68, who collapsed while watching the fire.

The retired human resources manager and his wife, who live in Plumstead Township, Bucks County, are faced with the prospect of rebuilding a business and pastime that had long been planned as their post-retirement career.

The books were kept in a barn that inside resembled a library, complete with vapor barriers on the walls to protect the collection.

There were early editions by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. On one shelf was Cavanaugh's most exciting find: a rare copy of John Steinbeck's 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle. The book was worth about $2,000, Cavanaugh estimated. In all, the value of the books lost was $500,000, he said.

With the exception of Cavanaugh's personal, not-for-sale collection of books on the Civil War, the barn's contents were not insured. The cost of insuring the remaining books as business inventory was "too expensive" and would cost more than all of his other insurances combined, he said. He called the decision unwise, in retrospect.

The Cavanaughs lived in a two-story house, white with black trim, built adjacent to the barn. Peg Cavanaugh, an artist and retired teacher, painted and exhibited her work, while her husband sold books on Web sites, including amazon.com and alibris.com. Then, on Tuesday, at 4 p.m., the lights flickered while Cavanaugh was at home watching Law & Order.

"We had had some electrical issues the week before, so it wasn't unusual," he said. When it happened again, he got up to fiddle with a switch and noticed smoke coming from the barn.

By 9 p.m., eight fire companies and mutual aid organizations had helped put out a fire that has since reignited in small patches because of the debris of wood and paper. The books were burned, and only portions of the barn were still standing. Part of the Cavanaughs' house also sustained major damage.

"We've been married for 45 years," Peg Cavanaugh said, "so you can imagine the accumulation of things you love."

Police Chief Scott Fleisher, of the Point Pleasant Fire Company, said that the cause could not be determined, but that the fire was not suspicious. He suspects an electrical malfunction.

The book collection began when, as a teenager, Ben Cavanaugh got hooked on the Two-Fisted Tales war comic books produced in the 1950s by EC Comics.

"They did a series on the Civil War," said Cavanaugh, who grew up in Ridley Park. "I bought one and then the next and the next. . .."

Cavanaugh then began looking for books on the Civil War, and collecting them. His interests expanded.

"War history, local histories, recent fiction," Cavanaugh said, "all kinds of books - but no porn."

He went to flea markets, book auctions and yard sales. As his collection grew, Cavanaugh and his wife planned to open a bookstore when they retired. Then, the Internet happened and plans changed.

"I didn't have to rent space and sit there and wait for customers," Cavanaugh said.

Since Tuesday, the couple have been overwhelmed by help from friends and family, including temporary housing by the Maplewood Farm Bread and Breakfast across the street. The day after the fire, Peg Cavanaugh wore clothes a friend had lent her, and talked on a borrowed cell phone.

The Cavanaughs already have begun planning the next step. They will rebuild the business. A design for a new barn/library is in the works.

"We're both very positive people, and we're looking forward to it," Peg Cavanaugh said. "We're going to go ahead and move on."


Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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