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Getting Hooked on Rare Books: 3 Experts Share Their Stories

From the time you learn to read as a child, you are invited to explore new cultures and discover new worlds through books. This nostalgic root of reading is core to why antiquarian and rare books are eternally popular, even despite the rise of e-readers and the Internet. But how does one make the leap from book lover to rare book obsessor? We reached out to three rare book experts and asked them to answer our burning question: What was the first book that got you hooked on rare books and collecting?

Angel Webster, Specialist in the New Rare Books

By Source, Fair use

By Source, Fair use

I read Moby Dick in High School and then wrote an essay on it to help me get into a good college. I got an A and I moved on. And on and on. I couldn’t wait to leave my small town. The next thing I knew I was 40 and there it was one day in front of me…a First Edition of Moby Dick. The book that I used to get me into college. It was squat, battered and faded. It looked like a tired, useless, old, used book. Moby Dick — where all Americans are represented as afloat, isolated on the waters, in danger, working, struggling, suffering — but as one tireless unit. And it was complete, that love I had for it, how it, like me, had struggled to exist and be seen and read, against all odds.

The first book in my collection was “The Old Huntsman and Other Poems” by Siegfried Sassoon. Second American Printing, 1920. I discovered it in a corner section of books in a used furniture store. Books from that era are hard to spot but if you squint your eyes and look for bland, buckram spines, you sometimes get lucky.

Erik DuRon, Rare Book Expert

By Glenn Cravath - http://www.fullyarticulated.com/page30/page36/page35/page24/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49572764

By Glenn Cravath – http://www.fullyarticulated.com/page30/page36/page35/page24/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49572764

The first book I bought for myself, when I was 8, was an Ace paperback reprint of the novelization of the original King Kong film from the 1930s. I found it in a spinning rack at an old drugstore in Greenwich Village, the kind of place with a mosaic tile floor and glass jars on wooden shelves behind the counter. The dusty, slightly medicinal smell of the place is forever associated in my mind with books. I still have that paperback.

Jennifer Robertson, Book and Paper Conservator

Via @bookandpaperconservation on Instagram

Via @bookandpaperconservation on Instagram

I don’t know if there was one particular book I could trace to, but when I started a part-time job at a used book store that also dealt in antiquarian books, my world was changed.

At the time, I came from a fine art background, so I started working with prints, maps and ephemera. But they got me cataloguing some of the rare books as well, and the tactility of the materials – leather, cords, parchment, gold tooling, etc. – really captured my attention.

Working at that bookstore led me to a career in conservation, where I now specialize in the conservation and restoration of fine art on paper, archival materials and rare books. I work privately and treat items for a variety of museums, libraries and archives, as well as private collectors. So, I own very few rare books myself, but I feel that every time that passes through my studio is a little bit mine, for a short time.

One of my biggest thrills was when, during an internship position, I worked on a page from the Gutenberg Bible. Not many people in the world can say they’ve handled a piece of history like that!


What got you hooked on book collecting? Do you have a distinct memory of the first book you collected? Share your stories with us on Twitter @ByJasper52 – We can’t wait to hear and retweet our favorites.

Historical & Antiquarian Book Auction on September 25 Highlights Value and Variety

With few reserves and low starting bids across the board, Jasper52’s upcoming sale of Historical & Antiquarian Books offers value and variety to eagle-eyed collectors and dealers alike.

First Editition "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak, Harper & Row Publishers, 1963. Estimate: $2,000-$3,000

First Edition “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, Harper & Row Publishers, 1963. Estimate: $2,000-$3,000

Beloved children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak starts things off with a first edition of his 1963 classic, Where the Wild Things Are. The scarce first issue dust jacket is present, with only moderate wear (featured above). Sendak is also represented later in the sale with a first edition of Randell Jarrell’s The Bat-Poet featuring Sendak’s illustrations (est. $20-40), and again with a signed early printing of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (est. $50-150).

Several literary lots are on offer, including: a first edition of Henry James’s early story collection Embarrassments, featuring the first book appearance of “The Figure In the Carpet.” This copy bears the bookplate of Arthur Desjardins, radiology professor for the Mayo Foundation and an authority on Hodgkins disease (lot 16, est. $50-150). A handsome two-volume limited edition of the poems of Keats is also up (est. $20-40), as are signed limited editions by contemporary novelists E.L. Doctorow (est. $30-90) and Alison Lurie (below; lot 19, est. $50-150).

"The Truth About Lorin Jones" by Allison Lurie, 1988, Signed limited first edition. Estimate: $50-$150

“The Truth About Lorin Jones” by Allison Lurie, 1988, Signed limited first edition. Estimate: $50-$150

A range of vernacular and instructional books keeps things interesting. Lot 32 is a copy of The Singer’s Companion. Published in 1860, it showcases music and lyrics for dozens of popular songs, as well as a charming frontispiece illustration, and is in lovely condition in its original publisher’s cloth binding (est. $80-120). A copy of The Good Shepherd Home Cook Book, published in Allentown, PA, in 1911, to raise funds for “crippled orphans, infant orphans, destitute children, old people, and aged or disabled ministers,” appears in its original staple-bound paper wrappers, and features many photos and line drawings (est. $40-70).

Those seeking something more glamorous will be drawn to a first edition of renowned fashion photographer Irving Penn’s beautiful 1980 monograph on Flowers (est. $100-200); as well as to an inscribed copy of A Table at Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes from New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant (est. $20-40).

"Flowers" by Irving Penn, First Edition. Estimate: $100-$200; "A Table at Le Cirque" by Sirio Maccioni and Pamela Fiori, signed Cookbook. Estimate $20-$20

“Flowers” by Irving Penn, First Edition. Estimate: $100-$200; “A Table at Le Cirque” by Sirio Maccioni and Pamela Fiori, signed Cookbook. Estimate $20-$40

An excellent presentation/association copy of Robert Capa’s dramatic book of photos of the Spanish Civil War is also on the block: it bears a gift inscription from Capa’s brother Cornell, a major force in photography in his own right, and a founder of the International Center of Photography (lot 41, est. $50-150).

"Fotografías de Robert Capa sobre la Guerra Civil española," by Carlos Serrano. Estimate: $50-$100

“Fotografías de Robert Capa sobre la Guerra Civil española,” by Carlos Serrano. Estimate: $50-$100

Finally, a number of compelling historical imprints and documents is offered, including: an unusual American war-related pamphlet, this one entitled “Why Me?” pertaining to the Vietnam War (est. $50-80); a Colonial extract regarding the punishment of “rogues and vagabonds” (est $50-100); and a large, beautifully accomplished English manuscript land indenture on vellum, and affixed with numerous wax seals (est. $100-200).


erik_cutout_blue-copyErik DuRon has nearly 20 years of experience buying and selling rare books in all fields, first at Bauman Rare Books in New York City, and then independently. He has built collections for diverse clients, and collaborates with and consults for collectors, booksellers and auction houses. He lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at erikduron@msn.com.

What Makes a Book Rare?

As a commodity books are abundant. They’ve been written on countless subjects, in every field of endeavor. Even as bookshops disappear, the Internet seems to make virtually any title readily available, and most can be had for a few dollars. In this day and age one might reasonably wonder, what makes a book rare?

The historian and bibliophile Paul Angle, quoted in John Carter’s indispensable reference ABC for Book Collectors, cites three sensible criteria for rarity: “important, desirable and hard to get.” Like Angle, I tend to think of rarity as a compound phenomenon, a series of discrete but related attributes that, when all present in one book, bestows a special quality, greater than the sum of its parts.

RELEVANCE

The first question one might ask about a book pertains to its relevance. Is it recognized? Has it stood out in some way, in its own field if not the wider culture?

There exist many books on arcane or abstruse subjects. Some of them may exist only in small numbers, but because they never rise to a level of general interest they are not sought after. Though scarce, they are not given the opportunity to be considered “rare.” More importantly, one should ask, is this book specifically of interest to me? It seems obvious, but collectors have been known to spend time and money in pursuit of books they think they ought to have rather than those they want to have.

IMPORTANCE & DESIRABILITY

This speaks to Angle’s first two conditions: importance and desirability. Next, one should consider a book’s bibliographic profile. Is it a first edition, i.e., from the earliest batch of copies to come off the printing press? And is it a first printing of the first edition?

Book collecting rests pretty solidly on the notion that the earlier the edition, the closer we come to the writer’s own world — to the standards of material production of the time, and the way in which first readers experienced the work. Failing a book’s being a first edition, one might ask if it’s an otherwise significant edition. Changes made within a text can be historically interesting in their own right. Charles Darwin kept making modifications to On the Origin of Species (1859), with each of the six editions published in his lifetime bearing his changes. A completist would want all six.

Book collecting rests pretty solidly on the notion that the earlier the edition, the closer we come to the writer’s own world

CONDITION

Another consideration is condition. Is the book complete, and without significant flaws? If it’s an older book, is it in the original binding? If not, is the replacement binding early and/or skillfully done?

Contemporary taste gives preference to authenticity, to a book being as close to its original state as possible. Interestingly, this wasn’t always so. In the 18th and 19th centuries many earlier books were rebound in sumptuous but period-inappropriate styles. This can make original or very early bindings harder to find. With regards to a modern book, is the original dust jacket present, and what is its condition? Dust jackets are crucial in the collecting of modern first editions, because they are the most fragile and ephemeral part of a book’s production. As such they can account for upwards of ninety percent of a book’s value.

Contemporary taste gives preference to authenticity, to a book being as close to its original state as possible.

SCARCITY

Scarcity is the final factor, what we think of as rarity in the most limited sense. How many copies of a given book were printed in the first place, and how many of those have survived? Further, how many are likely to be available at any given time?

Over the years universities and libraries have acquired many of the most desirable books. The folio and quarto editions of Shakespeare (that is, the earliest examples of the Bard’s works to have been printed), or Edgar Allan Poe’s notoriously rare first collection of poems Tamerlane (1827), or the first book printed in colonial America, the Bay Psalm Book (1640), of which only 11 known copies survive — such books seldom come to market.

Of course, scarcity is also a function of the first three factors: the most important and desirable books, in their earliest editions and in the best possible condition, are naturally sought after by the greatest number of collectors, and so they become ever harder to find. This may be discouraging to some, but I find that it presents beginning or adventurous collectors an opportunity.

The most important and desirable books, in their earliest editions and in the best possible condition, are naturally sought after by the greatest number of collectors, and so they become ever harder to find.

With so much generally available, there’s plenty of room outside of collecting orthodoxy for a fresh take. Collectors ultimately get to decide what’s of interest to them and, adhering to some sensible guidelines, which will be the rare books of the future.


Erik Duron copyErik DuRon has nearly 20 years of experience buying and selling rare books in all fields, first at Bauman Rare Books in New York City, and then independently. He has built collections for diverse clients, and collaborates with and consults for collectors, booksellers and auction houses. He lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at erikduron@msn.com.

Best Rare Bookshops in the US

Like paper-and-ink books in general, bookshops can seem like an endangered species in the digital age. Yet an undercurrent of profound commitment to this 560 year-old technology, the printed book, sustains book lovers in their belief that a better vessel for preserving and conveying testimony to what it means to be alive has yet to be devised, e-readers be damned. Booksellers, equally partisans of the printed book, continue to recognize this, and as long as they do, we can hope for the longevity of the bookshop as a place of discovery and community. Below are the top hits when it comes to rare book shops in the United States:

Image courtesy of Bauman Rare Books

Image courtesy of Bauman Rare Books

Bauman Rare Books

If you want an immersive experience in the history of the book as a cultural object, I can think of no better place than Bauman Rare Books. With shops on Madison Avenue in New York City and in the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, the Baumans offer what they call “landmark books” in all fields, from the 15th century to today. This amounts to a one-stop tour of some of the boldest ideas and most cherished writers the Western tradition has produced, from Shakespeare and Adam Smith to Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft, from Charles Darwin and Thomas Jefferson to Madame Curie and Martin Luther King, Jr. No other rare bookshop in the country has brought together a selection in as wide a range of subjects. Visitors shouldn’t be put off by the museum-like atmosphere, though. The booksellers here are extremely friendly and knowledgeable. They’re eager to share stories about the publication history of each book on display, and to educate newcomers in the terminology and tradecraft of rare and antiquarian books. You can even handle many of the great rarities on offer.

Honey & Wax Booksellers

So much of book collecting and bookselling is about personal taste, and no bookseller I know has better taste than Honey & Wax Booksellers. Their motto – “Use books as bees use flowers” – gestures perfectly at both the aesthetic and utilitarian functions that books have historically served. Honey & Wax offers a distinctive selection in literature, the arts and children’s books, among other areas. What really characterizes each of their books, though, is a strong visual or tactile component that’s emblematic of that book’s place in time and culture, something Honey & Wax describes as having “no downloadable equivalent,” whether it be hand-colored illustrations, an exquisitely crafted binding, or a unique ownership history. Honey & Wax’s books are primarily available online and through its beautiful catalogues, but their Brooklyn office is open by appointment only.

Brian Cassidy

Another dealer I greatly admire is Brian Cassidy, Bookseller. Cassidy is among a handful of emerging rare booksellers looking beyond traditional book collecting for the type of ephemeral material that shapes and defines cultural trends and movements before we’ve even realized it. Outsider literary magazines, punk rock posters and handbills, pulp paperbacks, handmade artists books, personal scrapbooks and photo albums documenting little-known subcultures – these are the kinds of “cultural detritus” Cassidy discovers and meticulously catalogues, providing a context for them in the larger world. Based in the Washington, D.C. area, Cassidy sells primarily online and through catalogues, as well as regularly at book fairs around the country.

The pleasures of ordinary used bookshops shouldn’t be overlooked or understated. Books produced at different moments in recent history jostle together on their shelves, reflecting both the changes and the constants of our communal tastes and values. Moreover, used bookshops are important incubators for collectors and dealers of rare books, as they demonstrate the richness and variety that are possible, and train the eye and fingertips in detection.

Unnameable Books

More than any other player, alas, it’s the used bookseller that’s most threatened in the digital age. One of my favorites still in operation is Unnameable Books in Brooklyn, NY. They have first-rate selections in fiction and poetry, philosophy and critical theory, art, film, music, history and politics, as well as books in foreign languages, and a small selection of rare books in back. They’re affordable, and they buy books and take them on trade. Basically they’re everything a good used bookshop – the kind you could once find several of in every neighborhood in New York City – should be.

Any of your favorites left off this list? Tweet @ByJasper52 and share your suggestions.

Erik Duron copyErik DuRon has nearly 20 years of experience buying and selling rare books in all fields, first at Bauman Rare Books in New York City, and then independently. He has built collections for diverse clients, and collaborates with and consults for collectors, booksellers and auction houses. He lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at erikduron@msn.com.

Aug. 28 Antiquarian & Historical Books Auction by Jasper52 boasts eclectic selection

Jasper52’s August 28th online-only rare books auction boasts an eclectic selection of fascinating books, autographs, and documents, from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Among the many subject areas to entice collectors at all levels are: American history, nautical history, World War II, literature, popular science, transportation, animal husbandry, art, and early printed books and autographs from England and the Continent.

James Fenimore Cooper’s two-volume History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839) kicks off the sale (featured below). Cooper is best known today for The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, novels of rugged individualism on the early American frontier, but in his time he was also a noted historian. Inspired by his own experiences as a sailor and midshipman, he wrote the first full-scale history of the U.S. Navy, from the Colonial period through the War of 1812. This first edition in the publisher’s original cloth binding has an estimate of $300-$400. Lots 5 (The War-Ships and Navies of the World) and 6 (Steel’s Elements of Mastmaking, Sailmaking and Rigging) will also be of interest to nautical enthusiasts.

History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839)

History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), James Fenimore Cooper. Est. $300-$400.

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