PASADENA – There’s a first-edition Ken Follett thriller lying on Michael Sharpe’s library table. First editions are what Sharpe collects. This particular potboiler, however, is surrounded by what experts call one of the most extraordinary private collections of rare books in the world. In just 20 years, Sharpe has amassed works of science, philosophy, medicine, exploration, religion, literature and mathematics, all classified as being in superb condition and worth about $25 million. Together, they record the growth of Western civilization through everything from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment to “Gone With the Wind.” Selling rare books, Sharpe said, is a way to keep dealing in a world he loves. “I’m obsessive compulsive, and I’ve found a great outlet that’s socially acceptable,” he joked. Sharpe didn’t come to the rarefied world of antiquarian books through academia. A fifth-generation Californian, he left home in Calaveras County at just 15. “It was too provincial,” he said. After taking a series of manual jobs – transporting chickens and digging ditches among them – he opened his first business, private mailboxes, at 17. “I worked very hard to make a living, and in the last six or seven years my business has given me enough free time to focus on collecting books,” said Sharpe, who moved on from ditch-digging to a career in financial services. Now he has the time to go after the books he wants “with a vengeance,” spending six or seven hours a day tracking them down. With the help of rare book expert Michael Des Marais, he has accumulated a starting inventory both men expect to draw bibliophiles worldwide. “We’ve already had people from London, the East Coast, New Zealand,” said Des Marais, who manages the book store and will build up the stock through “auctions, private sales, estates and savvy book scouts” worldwide. They expect to get local customers, too – possibly from another local rare book repository. “We do have most books of the books he has,” said Alan Jutzi, curator of rare books at the Huntington Library. “But the other thing is, he has books in spectacular condition, and these are hard to come by these days,” Jutzi said. He admitted to coveting Sharpe’s copy of Lewis and Clark’s voyage, in its original boards – early books were sold with cardboard covers so owners could choose their own binding. “The Huntington does not have it like that, ours has been rebound,” he said. “(Sharpe) has books that, for their condition alone, jump out at you as looking pretty much as they did when they were printed,” Jutzi said. “Despite his short time doing it, he’s considered a major collector among collectors.” Sharpe started out with Western Americana, partly, he said, because his great-great-grandfather led a wagon train to California, and growing up in Gold Rush country, he felt “an affinity” with the West. But he soon moved on to the Holy Grail of book collecting: “Printing and the Mind of Man,” a 1963 list of 424 of the most important books in Western civilization. He has 170 of them. Sharpe loves to handle his books and show them to groups or visitors. “He had book parties at Christmas, showing fabulous rare books, and a good time was had by all,” Des Marais said. But Sharpe “doesn’t read the literature,” which includes pristine first editions of everything from “Jane Eyre,” at $125,000, to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” at a more modest $6,000. “I get a paperback!” he said. Sharpe admits to feeling “almost romantic” about his books, and he gets passionate about some favorites: a Shakespeare Folio, a copy of “Structure of the Human Body” printed in Basel in 1543, worth $750,000, that he describes as “without question the finest in the world.” “The prices the authors paid to write some of this,” he said, gesturing to the works lining his two-story library. “It’s hard not to realize you’re sitting in the midst of history. Much of what we are today is on the shelves right here.” [email protected] (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4482160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREStriving toward a more perfect me: Doug McIntyre But now Sharpe is ready to go from book collector to bookseller. Michael Sharpe Rare & Antiquarian Books has just opened in a historic Craftsman house at 569 S. Marengo Ave., with a catalogued inventory worth around $8 million, about 20 percent of it from the personal collection kept at his Pasadena home. “It was a little bit of a wrench,” Sharpe said of shipping some of his private library off to the store. “I decided to keep history and science over literature,” he said. “I love them all, but it can take six to eight years to build up an inventory … `Frankenstein’ was hard to let go.” It’s listed at $18,500.