For the past two posts, I’ve been trying (apparently in the most wordy way possible — sorry) to make the connection between booksellers who worry that few young people are becoming book collectors and teachers who worry that few young people read at all. I’m not trying to say that book collectors collect books because they read a lot and that we should all worry because young people don’t seem to read much. In fact, as a reader commented on yesterday’s post, most collectors (myself included) don’t read their books at all.
What I want to point out is that collecting books can be the way for a reluctant reader or a non-reader to enter and learn to appreciate the world of books. Collecting takes the view that a book is to be desired not only for its content, but for its edition and condition, its physicality as an object or artifact. Even a person who doesn’t read much can learn a lot by collecting books. I’ll tell you a little secret. I haven’t re-read Dante’s Divine Comedy (one of my areas of specialty) since I quit teaching seven years ago. However, in continuing to collect illustrated and unusual editions of Dante, I’ve learned more about Dante and his masterpiece than I did when I read the original. No, I am not concerned at all that kids who don’t read much may never become book collectors. The reading part is not entirely relevant.
What is relevant is that young people don’t know — and I mean have never seen nor heard of — antiquarian books at all. I have one good friend — went to same high school I attended, college degree, good job, reads bestsellers and magazines — who once seriously asked me, “Did you say you sold books about aquariums?” She had never even heard the term antiquarian. Once I explained what I did and showed her a couple of my books, she thought it was pretty neat, but said, “Wow! I thought only really rich people could buy leather-bound books.” I was, to say the least, stunned. While collecting does require funnelling some money towards books, I am by no means “really rich”, yet I have antiquarian books because I took my time in acquiring them and sought them out everywhere. If I can do that, most other people with even a passing interest could, too, given the right encouragement and a little guidance.
How can we let people know that book collecting requires neither millions of dollars nor a Ph.D.? Because the antiquarian books that often grab the headlines are often the ones sold for millions of dollars, those few who are aware of them think that only the very rich and the very erudite can collect books, and not likely being one of those, these few eliminate for themselves the possibility of collecting books. While money and education certainly don’t hurt in any field, they are by no means a pre-requisite to book collecting.
So, I abruptly ended yesterday’s post with this question:
How, then, do we troll for new collectors and make it known that book collecting is a possibility for anyone with a serious interest?
1) I may be veering from the orthodox view of book collecting here, but meaningful collections can be built over time without spending a ton of money. One of my neighbors, for instance, loves surfing and has since he was a teenager. He has a wonderful collection of about 300 books on surfing — not an area commonly thought of as book collecting territory. It’s something he has put together from teenage years into middle age, paying attention to condition along the way. He does not actively seek these books, but adds them gradually as he comes across titles here and there. I think it an original collection that captures a dynamic and popular sport, and I’m ready and waiting any time he wants to sell it. My son Tom is inspired to find books about skateboarding whenever we attend the library sale together. Though he is not currently an enthusiastic reader, he has fun gathering these books because they show photos of cool tricks or give him information he seeks about the subject.
2) Support book collecting contests. Fine Books and Collections sponsors the Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship. When my business allows it, I’d like to sponsor such a contest on a smaller scale at the high school where I used to teach. These small contests show the younger generation that others like them are collecting. They needn’t wait to be come stock-option millionaires to begin collecting books. It also shows the younger generation how to gather information on a subject they in which they are interested from multiple sources and sellers, a skill that I think has become increasingly important in our internet society.
3) Exhibit at book fairs (especially those where the fair organizers do a good job of promoting the fair to the general public). Book fairs are good for you and for your business and for the antiquarian book business as a whole. Even when the fair is not a financially successful one, you don’t know to whom you might have introduced the concept of book collecting. I say this because I was, until recently, one of those people who wandered the fair looking at books and silently wondering how to become involved. There seemed to be an overwhelming amount of knowledge required. A few booksellers were very instructive and very kind in answering my questions. Though I probably didn’t buy anything at the time — heck, I was probably called a “tire kicker” by a few — their instruction helped me determine how I could collect and what I wanted to collect. They planted the seeds for future purchases by spending time educating me. If you’re a bookseller, don’t be grumpy and tired when asked for the umpteenth time how you know a book is a first edition. Take the time and explain to the newcomer. This is part of your job, even when it doesn’t result in an immediate sale.
4) Read Book Collecting: Some New Paths, by Jean Peters. This book discusses all kinds of interesting and viable approaches one can take when building a collection. It was helpful to me when I was trying to decide what focus I wanted for my (yes, it’s still unfinished) Dante catalogue.
5) Be patient. I think one big reason there are not a lot of collectors under 35 is that most people that age don’t have ANY disposable income. More importantly, for some it takes that long to realize that culture and history as presented in books are things that connect us with our past. In my experience, many teenagers and twenty-somethings are so focused on being different from everyone else that they haven’t developmentally reached a maturity where they desire to see a connection between themselves and the past. I would love to hear from any long-time bookseller whether there were many collectors under 35 during the “golden age” of bookselling in the early part of the 20th century.
6) When you encounter someone with an interest, be proactive and cultivate that interest. Send them catalogues. Suggest they subscribe to Firsts or Fine Books and Collections. Recommend your favorite book about books for them to read and learn.
I’ve tried to give a few ideas for introducing antiquarian books to newcomers. I realize that none of them are very original, but I don’t hear many other booksellers saying these things. Perhaps they already know better or they are already obvious to everyone else. Part of the fun of being new is not always knowing when your ideas are completely off-base. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below, if you have any. Part of the reason I blog is to learn from others.
Thanks for reading and sticking with me through these lengthy posts on this topic.
See you in the stacks!