Several times in the past I’ve mentioned The Private Library, an educational and informative blog for book collectors and booksellers alike. Today is the first in a two-part series on advice for new book collectors. Originally we had hoped to publish our advice as a print article, but then we decided that what we’d written was better designed for interactivity. The Private Library will present the collector’s perspective if you click here, and over here at Book Hunter’s Holiday, I’ll be presenting the point of view of an antiquarian bookseller, or at least the views of this antiquarian bookseller. We hope you find it helpful and we hope to generate some discussion in the comments sections of our blogs. If, after reading this, you have other questions related to book collecting, ask away in the comment box and I’ll do my best to respond. And now, here’s the article:
Questions New Collectors Ought to Ask Booksellers, Or, How Booksellers Can Help You, Part 1
Before I started selling books, I started collecting them. I was new to the “gentle madness” of book collecting, and I was a little bit intimidated and afraid to walk into an antiquarian bookshop. They’re usually so quiet. Would it be ok to browse? What if I didn’t find any good books to buy? What if the owner was unfriendly and unwilling to help a beginner, as some bookshop owners are rumored to be? It turned out I needn’t have worried. Most of the booksellers I met were friendly, so much so that I ultimately decided to become an antiquarian bookseller myself.
While there are certainly a few booksellers who fit the image of the introverted curmudgeon, most of us antiquarian booksellers love to discuss books and book collecting, sharing our enthusiasm and our knowledge with those who’d like to learn. In that spirit, here are a few ideas for what you might ask your favorite bookseller when you start collecting.
1. Can you help me?
Especially if you are new to book collecting, do not be intimidated by antiquarian booksellers or be afraid to ask them questions. That’s one of the reasons why we’re here. The vast majority of us are in business to sell books and to help you build a meaningful collection. If you encounter a grumpy bookseller, simply move on until you find someone willing to help you. We are happy to help you get started, we recognize that learning about book collecting and building a meaningful book collection takes time, and good booksellers answer your questions about books — which leads to the next thing we booksellers wish you would ask us.
2. How do I get started building a meaningful book collection (as opposed to just accumulating books)?
There are as many types of book collections as there are collectors, so you’ll have to be the one to determine the subject of your collecting. I remember when I first started collecting books. Some years ago, author and antiquarian bookseller John Dunning came to sign books and answer questions at a local store. New to the world of book collecting myself, I asked him how, if a person was interested in book collecting, she might get started. He laughed and gave an answer along the lines of, “If you have to ask the question, maybe book collecting isn’t for you.” His point was that we are restricted only by our imaginations, our budgets, and our ability to find good books. We should collect what we like and we will learn along the way. Even if you love subjects that would seem expensive to collect, there are still ways to build a meaningful collection.
3. Doesn’t it take huge investment of money to build a meaningful collection?
The answer to this question is — not always. While expenditures will need to be made to acquire books, they can usually be made gradually. When I began to assemble my first print catalogue on the subject of Dante Alighieri, a subject I knew well, I was unsure how to approach the collection. After all, most of the early, high spot editions of The Divine Comedy are priced in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. That was a price that, as a new bookseller, I simply could not afford. I decided to take a different approach. I decided to create a Dante collection where no item would cost more than $1,000 (a relative bargain compared to the price of incunabula) and where new collectors, young collectors, and collectors with a limited budget could see that a meaningful collection can be built on a small budget. Rather than focus on the very early, very expensive high spot editions of Dante from the past 700 years, I limited my Dante collection to illustrated and unusual editions of Dante from the last 300 years. My Catalogue #1: Dante Alighieri did better than I expected, selling a little over half the items in just two months. That tells me that there is a market of collectors who are interested in creating meaningful collections on a limited budget.
In order to make the collection a meaningful one, and not just an accumulation of books, first you have to decide what is the scope of your collection. Selecting scope helped me determine which books by Dante should be included in my catalogue. It also helped me to forge a new market – adding new and previously overlooked titles to the list of books that every Dante collector should have.
4. How do I determine the scope of my collection? How is a meaningful book collection different than just a gathering of books on the same subject?
The key to building a meaningful collection, whether or not it is a collection of means, is to determine at the beginning what will be the scope of the collection. Here are a few questions collectors should ask themselves when beginning to collect in a new area: What is the subject to be collected? Will it include books only or will it also include ephemera? What is your budget, what do books in your subject area generally cost, and how much time do you have to assemble your collection? Will collecting this subject require a great deal of research on your part, and, if so, do you have time to do that research? Once you have the answers to these questions, you will have a more focused idea of where to start.
To be continued tomorrow . . .
Remember to check out the cross-post at The Private Library to see what advice longtime collectors have for newbies.