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A Book of One's Own

Collectors of Rare Volumes Claim That They Aren't In It For the Money
Peter Slatin
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

Rare book is really a terrible misnomer," says Craig Anderson, manager of the Rare Book Room at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, a third-floor hideaway in an emporium that proudly proclaims 8 Miles of Books on an outside wall. "In general, these books aren't rare. That's why a lot of people can collect them."

Not rare? Well, as you might expect when discussing books, it's a matter of semantics: Anderson prefers the terms scarce and uncommon. The distinction actually points up the true measure of book collecting. It's a sport that is defined anew by anybody who plays. What seems most important to collectors, booksellers, publishers and librarians is that one collects what one wants most to collect.

What lies beyond that seemingly obvious dictum is that, should you start collecting books--something that can happen without your actually having made a decision to do so--you may soon become lost in a world of your own making. The history of publishing is so broad and deep that no matter where you turn, there will be something to hunt and gather.

Just as any respectable library is stacked with treasures and volumes that just about everyone reads as well as books that are almost never checked out, so book collecting is rife with contradictions as perplexing as the oxymoron that Craig Anderson deplores. Experts will point out that a book is valuable only if others have collected it before. But if the road has been traveled, what's the point in following? The answer--and the key to building a successful collection--is to discover and then map out your own realm.

"Books being what they are, virtually every subject can be found in them, every activity of humankind," says Roger Stoddard, curator of rare books at Harvard University's Houghton Library. "The beauty of books is that so many different interests can be served by them through 500 years of printing. What they have above all other objects is that you can find something that interests you over that span of time. It's not just authors," adds Stoddard. "You can collect a time, a subject. You can spend the next 30 years of your life happily forming a collection of--or about--Teddy Roosevelt, Mozart, Newton."

It's easy to get caught up in the mystique of rich leather bindings, soft paper and beautiful type or in great names, great ideas and tracing history in print. And though early purchases can and should be relatively inexpensive, the deeper you go, the more you will pay. "You have to be clever," warns Peter Kraus, owner of Ursus Books on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "The minute you go for brand-name things, you're competing with people and institutions who have vast resources. Invent the wheel. People are sheep, and to be successful you have to not be a sheep."

"It's a game," says Leona Rostenberg, a dealer, with her partner, Madeleine Stern, of early printed books (c. 1500-1800). The duo just celebrated their first 50 years in business. "You're pitting your knowledge against the next fellow's," says Rostenberg.

That can be tough for a novice, especially if the next fellow is already immersed in books, as many collectors are, by virtue of their profession--as librarians, professors, architects or playwrights. So how do you know you are buying the right book? Stephen Massey, a senior vice president in Christie's rare book department, is painfully blunt: "Become an expert," he advises. If you invent your own territory, you will be the only expert there, but the books you want will likely be sought after by other collectors with whom your interests intersect.

Becoming an expert is not as daunting as it might seem, although it takes time and effort. Visit book fairs and auction houses and read their catalogs as well as those put out regularly by private book dealers and other collectors. To verify a dealer's bona fides, check with the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), a national trade group. Find out if there is a local club, such as the Grolier Club in New York, which, though private, makes its library available to the public by appointment.

With luck, your subject will pick you more often than vice versa. Whether it's a hobby you have pursued, a writer you have loved or an age you wish you'd been born into, the books of that love will fall into your hands. What remains, however, is a range of choices that will determine the size and scope of future purchases. "There are two kinds of collectors," says Luke Ives Pontifell, a precocious publisher of beautifully crafted, idiosyncratic books he designs himself and issues in numbered limited editions under his own imprint: Thornwillow Press. (This type of limited-edition, finely wrought book is known as a "fine-press book"; its golden age was at the end of the nineteenth century. Thornwillow is just one of a myriad of active fine presses in the United States, England and elsewhere.) "There is the rigid, narrowly focused collector, who wants to buy everything ever produced by a single author. Then there is the peripatetic collector, who wants anything even remotely connected to such an author [known as "derivatives" in trade jargon], or to a discipline, or to an age." Pontifell, as befits his decadelong adventure at Thornwillow, is a voracious buyer of books on the history of printing and typography.

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