Sonny Ideker’s love of books resides in the artistry of the object

Among the 3,400 books in his Roswell shop, two date back to the 15th century.

Sonny Ideker, 76, has never been fond of reading. The Kansas native is dyslexic. He grew up in a rural home where the only books were a Bible, a dictionary and some encyclopedias. He struggled academically in college and failed an English proficiency test.

Today he is an antiquarian book dealer. Operating inside City Antiques & Interior Arts in Roswell, Sonny Ideker Bookseller has thousands of rare titles dating to as early as 1493. They range from 18th-century first edition travelogues to 17th-century medical textbooks to texts from Saudi Arabia and span a multitude of languages.

“I would say south of New York City, we have the most valuable, the most extensive and the most handsome visual collection of books in the United States,” Ideker said.

So how did this happen? He still doesn’t believe it sometimes.

Ideker spent 20 years in the Air Force, first as a navigator primarily in Thailand, then as a pilot in Korea and Hawaii. He was stationed in Europe for five years — Spain and Germany — but never one entered a bookstore or antique shop.

After he retired from the Air Force in 1988, he moved to Atlanta with his wife, Janel, and worked for Delta as a flight engineer and then a pilot for international flights.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

One day, Janel, an interior decorator, asked Ideker to be on the lookout for some books to dress up their living room. He was staying in Brighton, England, at the time and came across Colin Page Antiquarian Books store. He was in awe of the selection and the history of each book, from the floral prints to the breadth of authors. He befriended Page, who introduced Ideker to booksellers across England.

“I had never seen anything like this, and the guys that owned the store, they probably saw my mouth fly open,” Ideker said. “Instead of laughing at me, though, they asked, ‘Can I help you,’ and they just bent over backwards to show me books and introduce me to other dealers.”

He gravitated to older books, though he admits he didn’t know enough about the industry to look for certain authors or genres. Instead, he learned to assess the quality of books and trace their lineage through design elements, such as the materials they were made from or the bindings.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

He would return to these stores when he was in town for work, and his contacts expanded to other parts of Europe like Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Manchester. He retired from Delta in 2005, and in his retirement began buying and selling books at antique stores and book fairs shows across the world.

While studying at Kennesaw State University, Steven Martin volunteered to help out at a book fair where he met Ideker. They struck up a friendship over their shared love of books, and by the end of the second day of the book fair, Martin was invited to join Ideker on a buying trip to Baltimore. After that trip, Martin decided he wanted to sell books for a living. He became manager for a Barnes & Noble store and then went to work for Ideker, traveling the country doing book shows for six years.

“What I enjoy is sitting down with the book, discovering not only what’s in the book with regard to its topic or why it was produced, but even the artistry of the book itself ... trying to put the dots together to tell a story,” said Martin.

In 2006, Ideker retired from the road again and moved his book sales operation to City Antiques & Interior Arts in Roswell. Martin left to work for an auction and estate sale company, but in June he returned to work for Ideker full time.

Ideker currently has 3,400 items in his collection, many purchased during his travels. The majority are English language, but he also has 230 French titles and 110 in Latin. There are two books from before 1500, one on the Gospels and the other on astronomy. Some sell for well over $1,000, including a mother of pearl Bible given to Jimmy Carter by Yasser Arafat, former chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The most expensive book is a history of modern painting signed by Pablo Picasso and priced at $35,000.

One section is devoted to Bibles bound in materials including vellum, leather and silver. Some are gigantic, others are the size of a pinky nail. There is a New Testament from 1564 bound in pigskin and a 17th century Dutch Bible featuring 1,000 woodcut prints. There are also Islamic religious texts like the Qur’an, as well as some from China, Japan and India.

In addition to a rare full collection of books by Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, the store has plenty of Shakespeare, including a collection of plays with black-and-white illustrations and fore-edge detailing — a scene painted on the edge of the pages. Also in the collection are the complete works of Shakespeare issued to subscribers in 1890 with a steel engraving; people who collected all 50 issues could get them bound. He has a bound copy in the shop, naturally.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Instead of keeping the books behind glass cases, Ideker likes to let customers take books off the shelf and handle them.

“We don’t necessarily specialize in anything, which means that we have a great selection,” said Martin. “Where else can someone go to just see, to feel, to experience this many books?”

Recently on display was a set of books from Italy, including one from 1695 about Roman churches, chapels and altars, and a six-volume set from the 1750s on Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii.

The shop is a mecca for collectors of antiquarian books.

“I spent a couple of weeks in Rome looking for books, and ... he had better quality stuff and a much bigger selection than what I could even find in Europe,” said Joe Dinardo, an Atlanta lawyer and collector for 20 years. He’s purchased religious books dating back to the 17th century from Ideker, as well as antiquarian law books.

One regular is Dan Owenby, a field service engineer and living history re-enactor who collects antique tools and shotguns in addition to books. Over the years he’s bought historical treatises on civil engineering, Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” and an original 1706 copy of “Synopsis Palmariorum Matheseos,” which first introduced the pi symbol.

“It’s amazing that my 1706 edition of the mathematics book has been around since before this country was a country, before the Revolutionary War, before the French Revolution, before the French and Indian War through the Civil War, through Lincoln’s presidency, through Washington’s presidency, all the way to today and it’s still here,” he said. “You can still pick it up and use it to do math. It shows you how little things change and how much things change.”

Happy accidents are the nature of antiquarian book sales. Once at a show in Dallas, a bookseller from Holland came across Ideker’s booth and said he had some books to give away. The box contained $500,000 worth of books.

Like a lot of bookstores, Ideker saw an uptick in sales during the pandemic. Last year was his best sales year yet. All it took was a lockdown to make books “something desirable again,” he said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

He attributed it in part to books’ accessibility to all audiences, including children. When kids visit the store, Ideker takes pleasure in introducing them to his collection of fore-edge books.

“Young people don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s why it’s so important to be able to have a 10-year-old come in the store and show them how to properly take a book off the shelf,” he said.

John Kuhn, an attorney and former South Carolina state senator from Charleston, has spent years building his dream library in his historic home on The Battery. He already had some rare books, including a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary,” when he found Ideker through his interior designer. Over the years he has purchased all sorts of books from Ideker, including texts on South Carolina history and a first edition of “Lewis & Clark’s Expedition.”

“Sonny brings something that I just loved and that is enthusiasm for Southern books and European books from his travels,” said Kuhn, “and the enthusiasm is contagious.”

Sonny Ideker Bookseller. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday. City Antiques & Interior Arts, 700 Holcomb Bridge Road, #100, Roswell. 770-853-3311.