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Family's book sale a wrapup of dad's dream

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 12:36 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Karen Watkins organizes the tens of thousands of books for sale on the shevles at Sunapee Books in the old Kensington Electric building on Route 66 in Bethel Township on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

Paul L. Radion Jr. wanted to do more than open just a bookstore.

A New Kensington native who had been raised in Gilpin Township, Radion came back to the area from New Hampshire in 2009 after his parents died.

“My dad wanted to move back to be closer to the family,” said his daughter, Karen Watkins, of Lower Burrell.

He brought with him six tractor-trailers full of books from Sunapee Books, his store in Newport.

He set his sights on the former Gilpin Elementary School, which, beyond a bookstore, Watkins said, he envisioned becoming a hub for the community with other shops and more.

“He had a lot of plans. He really did,” Watkins said of her father, who served with the Navy in Vietnam. “He wanted a meeting place for veterans, a place where they could come together and feel comfortable. He had a lot of good ideas.”

Those plans and ideas met with concerns and restrictions and never came to fruition.

His health declined and Radion died at home in Gilpin on March 1 at age 65, having never opened a bookstore here.

He has left his children — daughter Karen and his son, Paul J. Radion, of Rhode Island — with about 150,000 books.

The books had been in storage and now are kept at the old Kensington Electric building off Route 66 at Grantz Hollow Road in Bethel, where Watkins is opening the doors to the public for a sale this weekend.

“We want to get them out of here,” she said on Thursday while prepping for the sale, their second. “It's overwhelming at times. What does one do with 150,000 books?”

More books than most libraries

Watkins thinks she has more books than a lot of libraries — and she's right.

For example, her inventory is two to three times that of Peoples Library, which has about 32,000 items at its main library in New Kensington and about 28,000 at its Lower Burrell branch.

Her collection also tops the 2012 circulation of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Downtown & Business branch, which circulated about 118,000 items last year.

It would place Radion's selection third in Carnegie Library's 19 location system after Squirrel Hill, which circulated about 274,000 items, according to the library.

“The variety is what's amazing. There's everything from cookbooks to textbooks to literary classics,” Watkins said. “All languages — Spanish romance novels, I got those, too. There's fiction and nonfiction — everything under the sun.”

Gems include rare books, first editions and autographed books.

Autographed books include a copy of “Faith of My Fathers” signed by John McCain, and “Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica,” a book from 1895 by John Kendrick Bangs bearing a signature dated 1903.

A signed Ernest Hemingway first edition had been seen, but now can't be located.

“There's a lot of cool things here,” Watkins said.

Trailers were a concern

Concerns over the trailers in which Radion kept his books resulted in Gilpin Township officials in 2011 placing conditions on his plans to locate at the closed elementary school on Godfrey Road.

“He was upset,” she said. “He thought he would've gotten a better reaction to what he wanted to do.”

While Watkins said her father probably could have abided by their terms, doing so was probably not in his nature.

To get around no smoking rules in New Hampshire, Radion turned his bookstore into a private club.

He charged a one-time membership fee of 25 cents so he and his customers could smoke in the store.

“My dad could be a very stubborn man at times,” Watkins said. “I think if my dad had been more forthcoming with the information about what he wanted to do, a lot more would've accepted the idea and would've helped him more.”

“He wanted to take an eyesore and make something good,” she said. “I really wish he would've succeeded.”

1st sale left many books

The first sale in August went well and drew a lot of book dealers, but made barely a dent in the collection.

Many of the books are now organized on shelves for easy browsing, but three trailers remain half-full of books.

As co-administrators of their father's estate, Watkins said she and her brother have not decided what they'll ultimately do with the books.

They've made donations to charity, and will do more, but the estate has bills to pay.

“We're going to do something good with it,” she said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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