13 Secrets of Rare Book Dealers
In the digital age, the rare book trade might seem like an antiquated trend from a bygone era, known for its dusty tomes and pedantic old men. But e-books have actually awakened readers to the fact that a printed book is more than just the written text—it’s an historical object itself. Thanks to the internet, information on this esoteric subject is now widely available, and more people than ever are learning about book collecting. Dealers are also handling a wider variety of material, and these fresh perspectives are electrifying a once-sleepy, rarified world. With these developments, the trade has changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 200. Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer based in Brooklyn, shares some secrets and surprises of this quirky corner of book culture with Mental Floss in this list.
1. AN OLD BOOK ISN’T NECESSARILY A RARE BOOK.
In book collecting, supply and demand are king. A book becomes “rare” when it’s both hard to find and highly sought. If the supply side or the demand side isn’t extreme, it doesn’t qualify. This means a book from 1850 isn't necessarily “rare” if no one wants it. And no, a book from the 1800s isn’t automatically desirable because it’s “old.” In rare books, the word "old" is relative: Within the 500 years of printed history we handle, a book from 1850 isn't really that old. The only books old enough to be highly sought-after just for their age are those printed in the 1400s, from the earliest years of printed books in the West.
2. IT’S NOT JUST BOOKS.
Yes, our profession is called the rare book trade, but that's because it’s easier to say. In fact, we handle manuscripts, scrolls, etchings, and other prints, archives—even sometimes ventriloquist dummies from itinerant woman preachers. Is there text? Or does the item have a connection to books in some way? That’s good enough for us.
3. YES, DUST JACKETS REALLY ARE THAT IMPORTANT.
“Completeness” is a key standard of book collecting—the idea is that a book should retain all the parts with which it was historically issued. In modern books, this often means the dust jacket: A first edition’s price can rise or fall exponentially based on the original dust jacket. An extreme example is The Great Gatsby: Without the jacket, a first edition currently runs around $4000-$6000. In a decent, unrestored original dust jacket, the price leaps closer to $100,000.
4. WE LITERALLY COUNT EVERY PAGE OF A BOOK.
This is especially true for books from before about 1800, in what we call the “handpress” period. The earlier in print history you go, the more likely you are to discover missing pages. Objectionable passages are torn from banned books. Stunning engravings are excised to be framed and put on a wall. The blank pages in the front or back of a book are often missing, too: Historically, paper was an expensive commodity, so owners would tear out those blank pages for use. Dealers must go through a book page by page to make sure that everything has remained intact. We even have a specialized method of counting based on how the book was formatted by the printer. And we hate being interrupted in the middle of counting a 500-page book. One of my friends puts a sign on her desk that reads, “Don’t bother me: I’m counting.”
5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO COLLECT.
The books that make the headlines are the $6 million Shakespeare First Folio or the $150,000 first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But often the most interesting collections—the ones that end up housed at some prestigious institution—are built by people who aren’t buying the most expensive books. In 2015, Duke University acquired the collection of Lisa Baskin, which documents women at work through the past five centuries, to much fanfare. Baskin formed this world-class collection for a fraction of the expense one might expect—because for most of the 40 years she was collecting, she was purchasing books that weren’t popularly sought. Today we say, “an 18th-century woman entomologist who published her own drawings of her scientific observations? Yes please!” But in the 1980s, such works were met with a shrug.
This year my company established a book collecting prize for women aged 30 and under with an eye toward demonstrating that great collections don’t have to be valuable tomes kept behind glass. Our first winner collects romance novels.
6. WE HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT A BOOK’S SMELL.
We’ve all held a beloved old book and smelled the pages, taking in that vanilla-like aroma. It’s cozy. It’s peaceful. It reminds us of rainy days, blankets and tea, secret gardens. And it’s not relevant to most rare books. That particular smell comes from the lignin in cheaply produced paper, a chemical introduced when wood pulp was added to papermaking processes in the 1840s. For most of the history of printed books—over 500 years—a book with a smell means mold, or dirt, or any number of unpleasant materials that have been rubbed into the pages over the years. Smells are a red flag that something is wrong. We do not want our books to smell. Walking into our shop and remarking on the smell is like exclaiming, “Your books are gross!”
7. WE DON’T USE WHITE GLOVES. AND WE’RE NOT SORRY.
This is probably the single biggest misconception about rare books. Random strangers yell at me for it all the time. In fact, it was established years ago that gloves weaken your tactile sensitivity. That means you're much more likely to tear a page, or otherwise damage the book (like, heaven forbid, dropping it) while wearing them. Instead, conservationists simply recommend handling them with washed and well-dried hands. This myth has been perpetuated by the exceptions: A very small percentage of materials, like metal bindings and photographic film, do require gloves. But rare book curators from such institutions as the Harvard library system and the British Library [PDF] have made it very clear that white gloves have no place in a rare book room.
8. DIFFICULT CLIENTS DON’T GET OFFERED THE BEST MATERIAL.
Say you’ve acquired the find of a lifetime. You know there are at least three collectors who would jump for the chance to add it to their library. Who gets the first offer? The guy who beats you up about your price and denigrates the material as part of his haggling strategy, or the guy who smiles and asks you how you’ve been before you get to the serious talk? Many collectors think haggling gets them the better deal, but it’s a dangerous game: Become too difficult or stressful to work with, and you will get fewer phone calls from the dealers who find the material you want to buy.
9. THERE IS AN ASSOCIATION OF ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS, WITH BYLAWS AND A CODE OF ETHICS.
If you’re a new rare book dealer, one of your most important goals is getting into the ABAA, or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. You must demonstrate a record of professional dealings for at least four years in order to apply. Current members are surveyed and asked whether new applicants pay their bills, accurately describe their material, and run their business ethically. Once you join the ABAA, there are a number of important perks. Besides carrying the seal of approval in the American rare book trade, you are eligible to showcase your inventory at the ABAA-organized book fairs, including the biggest one in the country, at the Armory in New York City. For some dealers, the sales from the New York book fair alone can make up 25 percent to 50 percent of their annual revenue.
10. IT’S NOT JUST OLD WHITE MEN. BUT IT IS PRETTY MUCH ALL WHITE.
In this business, dealers in their 40s are considered the young whippersnappers. But the new generation of younger dealers is making its presence felt, especially in handling material outside the traditional canon of dead white men: LGBTQ material, African Americana, women’s history, pulp publications, punk ephemera [PDF], and more.
Women are making significant inroads as well. While there have always been formidable women at the top of the rare book trade, we’re seeing an increasing number of women running their own businesses or being offered equity in established firms. We also recently established a successful schedule of networking events to provide support, mentoring, and business opportunities for women in the trade.
We still have a major problem with racial diversity, however. The trade is taking steps to attract and train people from underrepresented groups, but we have a long way to go. One of the most important new developments is the Belle da Costa Greene scholarship, named after J.P. Morgan’s brilliant book buyer and librarian, who was African-American. It is awarded annually to a person from an underrepresented or disadvantaged community to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, commonly known as “Bookseller Bootcamp” for dealers.
11. MANY RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ALSO SCHOLARS IN THEIR CHOSEN FIELDS.
Many of the best rare book dealers specialize in particular subject areas. Because of their endless research with primary source materials, they earn a reputation of expertise in that topic. One famous example is the 20th century rare book dealer Madeleine Stern, who tracked down Louisa May Alcott's pseudonyms in her search for material to sell and discovered that the author of Little Women had for years been writing sensational "blood and thunder" stories—19th century pulp fiction—under a pen name.
12. MOST COMPANIES ARE PRETTY MUCH MOM-AND-POP SHOPS.
Many rare book dealers are one- or two-person operations. Only a small fraction of companies have three or more employees. A company is huge if it has over ten people. On the one hand, this gives the job a decidedly anti-corporate atmosphere: Many of us joke that we are unemployable elsewhere. On the other hand, it also means we do everything needed to run the business, from shipping to website design, on our own. Besides the bootstrapping, it also means living with the risks of a small business. For example, I know of only a handful of rare book firms who offer health insurance or some kind of retirement plan. Frankly, most of us plan to keep dealing until we drop dead mid-sale.
13. RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ONE BIG FAMILY.
This is a small world. We all know each other. The ABAA is made up of perhaps 400 active members across the nation. Many of my best friends are fellow dealers, even if they live across the country. We see each other a few times a year, mostly during book fairs, where we celebrate our regular reunions with lots of alcohol. We know which dealers have chronic money problems, which are most likely to be casually sexist, and whom we can go to in a crisis. We know each other’s strengths, so we’ll often refer people with books to sell to a colleague who specializes in that subject. ABAA book fairs, in many ways, are like Thanksgiving dinner with extended family. We may not all get along, but we all made the same decision: to try making a living in this odd world, risking our livelihood to help save and preserve history.