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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

(continued from page 1)

It is possible to do it both ways, notes Roger Stoddard, especially if your interests are broad enough. "You can be all determination and rigor on one side or have fun and make it a little more sporting," he says. "I've just written up a local collector who left two collections," he adds by way of example. "One is a collection of English fine-press books bound from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, the high moment of private press work. It's not complete, but it's all taste and judgment--a very elegant little cabinet. The other collection is comprised of Sherlockana, Arthur Conan Doyle's first editions; this is all rigor. That's one man doing it both ways, and it's quite wonderful."

No matter how much you can afford to spend or how many feet of shelf space you can build and fill, boundaries need to be set: from quality to price, from condition to edition, from what's between the covers to the covers themselves.

At the same time, a certain flexibility is necessary to keep a collection from stagnating. "I'm interested in the transmission of texts," says Glenn Horowitz, a New York City dealer who also maintains a store in the exclusive Hamptons area of Long Island. Although he offers a fairly broad range of books for sale, as a collector himself, Horowitz is especially taken by books that bear some trace of their author or owner--notes or inscriptions in the author's hand, for example. "Because of the intersection of the text and the author's physical presence in the text," says Horowitz, these books, "take on the presence of a living artifact, a meaningful level of animation. First editions of modern writers are important, but more important to me is that the books indicate personal contact or carry a revelation on some level about their author or their owner."

But Marty Barringer, a collector who is the librarian of special collections at Georgetown University's library, couldn't care less about who wrote what to or about whom. Barringer seeks out "decorative publishers' bindings," something that has gained attention in recent years.

"We don't buy books for their innards," says Barringer, who says he is "one of those rare collectors who buys with his wife." Their collection of about 1,800 volumes, amassed over the past 20 years, ranges from "Bibles to treatises against masturbation and all points in between." Very seldom, he adds, have they paid more than $500 for an item.

Publishers' bindings began in the eighteenth century to supplant the aristocratic practice of bringing books to one's private binder for individual finishing. Publishers began to issue bound editions of books and found that decorated bindings were one way to attract attention and provide longevity for their products. Rather than go for first editions, which are more sought after for those innards he abjures, Barringer buys second editions. "The bindings bear the same relationship to the tastes of the time and they are cheaper. What's really crucial is condition. It's amazing to see a book produced in 1845 that looks the way it did the day it appeared for sale." To preserve the collection, the Barringers installed a library in their master bedroom and moved themselves into their guest room. "The idea is to keep [the books] in the room where the TV is not, where we don't slosh drinks around and can keep sun out."

Despite his attention to the care of his books and the obvious value of his collection, Barringer says he never buys with an eye toward investment. "Absolutely not," he insists. "That's the biggest piece of foolishness in the world--it would be like picking a restaurant on the basis of nutritional value."

The question of value--"nutritional" or financial--is as slippery in antiquarian books as in any other collectible. Age is a virtual red herring, says Peter Kraus of Ursus Books. "The one thing that drives me nuts is that people are always intrigued by age. Age is the most irrelevant factor. Many old books are worthless while those that are five years old are valuable or desirable. There isn't anyone going around buying old books because they're old." Kraus calls a current trend of collecting first editions or even galley proofs of such pulp authors as Stephen King or John Grisham "pathetic." For those looking for real value in collecting first editions of authors, he suggests foreign-language editions, because Americans just aren't that interested in them. "A great French writer like Proust is going to cost one-fifth of Hemingway," he suggests. Of course, the eventual cost will depend on edition, condition and demand--the ultimate price-setter.

It is, after all, a hunt, and the quarry may change before your eyes. That's especially true for those to whom finding a book is not nearly as exciting as searching for it. "Each book leads to the next," says Leona Rostenberg, a twinkle in her sharp eye.

Peter Slatin reads and writes in New York City and is a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator and The New York Times.

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