A new book hunter might ask, “How do you know when you’ve found a good book?” The simplicity of the question belies the complexity of its answer. Author, illustrator, title, subject, edition, condition, binding — all these things and less have attracted me to the books I’ve acquired.
The ability to determine whether a book is a good one or not is probably best summed up by two spectacular veteran booksellers, now deceased — Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. In their memoir, Old Books, Rare Friends, they write:
“As far as we know, the word Finger-Spitzengefuhl never made it to a dictionary. It was originally Herbert Reichner [another bookseller to whom Rostenberg was an apprentice] who passed it on to us. A tingling of the fingertips becomes an electrical current of suspense, excitement, recognition. In an artificially controlled voice, one of us calls to the other, ‘Look! This may be something.’ And two heads look down upon the title page of a discovery. Sometimes the Finger-Spitzengefuhl occurs on the spot as we scan the shelves of a foreign dealer. Sometimes it takes place only after the purchase has been made and we study our finds. Whenever or wherever it occurs, it is an experience that makes the rare book business a hymn to joy.”
A hymn to joy. That is indeed the very feeling of finding the right book in the right condition at the right price. For me, a bookseller, finger-sptizengefuhl is the ability to look at a book and know I can resell it if I can find the right customer. Fingerspitzengefuhl also means sometimes buying a book on a hunch. For instance, when I was just starting to collect books (long before it occurred to me to become a bookseller) I found a good book in a most unlikely place, discovering much later that the book actually had resale value.
Several years ago, when I was just discovering book collecting, my kids were in a tumbling class, and I had 30 minutes “free time” until the class ended. I usually spent this time browsing the various shops on the street. One of the shops sold used furniture from the 1970s. It was primarily a junk store. One day while my kids were in class, I entered the shop to see if they had (what else) bookcases. The shopkeeper had used a few old books in an attempt to adorn the lone shabby bookcase she had for sale. As I examined the bookcase, my eyes scanned the titles decorating its shelves. One title in particular caught my eye, but I wasn’t sure why. I took it off the shelf. It was a small book, with a pretty illustrated paste-down cover. There was something about the title. I knew I had heard it before, but couldn’t remember where or what the story was about. I opened the book. It was printed in 1901. If nothing else, the book was pretty. I decided to buy it and test my new book collector skills by researching whether or not it was a first edition. I purchased the book for four dollars.
After I returned home, I remembered why I felt familiar with that book. The title was a short story that appeared in the anthology of American Literature I had once used to teach my sophomore high school students. I tried to research the book, but information on identifying it in first edition was scarce. I couldn’t find any first edition copies of the book offered for sale online. After sending emails to a couple of booksellers I didn’t even know and to the author Nicholas Basbanes, I knew more about the book but little about whether or not it was a first edition. (Allow me to add how generous with their time and knowledge these booksellers and the author were when they received my email query about the book.) I decided to visit my local university’s library, which I learned had a book on the history of the printing of this book. (If you don’t find something at your public library, try your nearest college library. Their reference works are usually far superior to those of a suburban public library.) Two weeks later (the soonest I could arrange an afternoon without my kids), bursting with curiosity, I visited the library and found out that I had an early printing of this title, which only had about 2,000 copies printed. The book had significant value. I have not sold it, but have kept it as a reminder of my first incident of fingerspitzengefuhl.
My book find that day led me to consider bookselling as a career, and I will always be grateful that, in this case, the fingerspitzegefuhl kicked in at the right moment. In this particular case, my earlier degree in English and my years as an English teacher had informed my choice of book. With other neat finds, it has been a piece of information I have or suspect I can find if I buy the book. Sometimes it is a book that is in some way different from others I have seen before. If you’re new at book hunting, then next time you are out and about, remember that anything can be anywhere and that fingerspitzengefuhl often pops up when you’re least expecting it. Good luck!
Tomorrow: Meeting Other Booksellers