A Book of One's Own

Collectors of Rare Volumes Claim That They Aren't In It For the Money

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.

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.