Philobiblon

This season’s first meeting of the Philobiblon Club of Philadelphia – of which I am now a proud board member, thank you very much! – was held this past Tuesday evening. Before the excellent talk by Roger Wieck of the Morgan Library on “The Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon,” members enjoyed catching up over cocktails and dinner. It was during this time that a few people remarked they hadn’t heard much from me in a while. I know, I know! So here is a blog post to say I am still here and still working (although another hiatus will likely come this winter, as we are expecting baby number two)!

Back in February I was honored to give my own talk at the Club, on “What’s New in Antiquarian Bookselling?,” in which I suggested that while antiquarian bookselling today is largely unchanged from decades past (for many dealers it still entails traveling, visiting libraries, buying and selling in traditional ways), new themes in collecting as well as innovations in technology have had a dramatic impact on the marketplace. My talk focused on the emerging trends I see: the collectability of “hybrid” books, interest in social history subjects, and the role of social media in bookselling.

Voilà! Click on the link below for the slides, and/or read on for the full talk, which has been hastily edited to remove stage directions/notes to self.

ZARB Philobiblon Talk Feb 2019

Before I dive into “What’s New in Antiquarian Bookselling?,” let me tell you how I came to be in this field. It all began in the Mortimer Rare Book Room my first year at Smith College. Immediately after a presentation on Italian Literature by the then curator, Martin Antonetti, I asked him for a job; and to my great surprise and delight, he said, “probably.” As it turned out, I spent most of the next three years working there. One of the most poignant moments in my early career was the publication of this footnote.

Slide: “New Clues to the Early Life of Arrighi: Ludovico degli Arrighi’s ‘bellissimo Canzoniere’ for Bartolomeo della Valle, 1508,” in The Book Collector, vol. 61, no. 2, Summer 2012.

Martin was working on a revised biography of Arrighi – a 16th-century papal scribe largely responsible for the italic type we use today. On a research trip to Madrid, I found illuminated initials in the margins of an Arrighi manuscript proving that a different patron commissioned it than previously thought. The thrill of this discovery made my resolution to pursue a career in books and manuscripts that much stronger. After Smith I interned at Christie’s London book department and then moved back to New York to work at Bloomsbury Auctions, where I couldn’t believe they let me carry incunabula from the offices at Rockefeller Center uptown to the Grolier Club to check bibliographies.

Handling such important books and seeing incredible prices reached at auction was exciting, but I was always most interested in “used” books – the who, what, when, why? I was able to explore these questions more in depth working for booksellers in Philadelphia and New York; and finally decided to set up business on my own in 2015, when my husband’s sabbatical gave us the chance to move to Paris for a year. Tonight I will show you a few of the items I found during that time abroad, as we examine what I see as emerging trends in antiquarian bookselling today: the collectability of “hybrid” books, the rising interest in social history subjects, and the role of social media in bookselling.

We probably all agree a book or manuscript is a piece of history that can convey so much information not just in its text but in its context, that the value of a book lies not only in its imprint, but also in its story as an object.

Slide: Bonaventura, Tommaso. Ordine da Tenersi nel Dar l’Abito Monacale… [WITH]: Ordine d’Ammettere le Monache Novizie alla Professione… Firenze: Michele Nestenus, et al., 1709.

This is a guide for inducting novices into a Florentine convent, with stage directions in red, and recitations in black, plus more than 70 bars of music. This copy was most certainly owned by a nun and used in ceremonies, evidenced by an ownership inscription on the title-page and candle wax stains on some pages. The occasional light water splotches – a fault, according to many booksellers – were probably also the result of ritual use. It even has, through the gutter of the final two quires, a contemporary metal pin probably forgotten by the binder who received the quires that way prior to sewing. So you can see, thinking about the book in terms of its use and history as an object opens new doors to its research value.

In an article entitled “Beyond Words” [The American Historical Review, Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2005), pp. 1015-1045], art historian Leora Auslander suggested that objects “are always modes of communication, or memory cues, or expressions of the psyche…as well as sites of aesthetic investment… They, like the people who use them, are embodied.” They are mortal, too, although they often outlive us. In other words, “material culture” is a tangible extension of the past, and as such, an invaluable resource for study today. You could, of course, make this argument about any object (and Auslander basically does); but I would like to point out one passage from this article that applies to books and booksellers in particular:

“…Those who study material culture [can be divided] into two groups, the farmers and the cowmen. The farmers are preoccupied with the ‘material’ side of material culture, the age, substance, and structure of the object, its provenance, its authenticity. The cowmen engage more deeply with the ‘culture’ side of material culture and try to determine the meanings embedded in and transmitted by the objects in question.”

Those toiling in the field of bookselling, I would argue, must be fluent in both materiality and culture. We are the farmer and the cowman, able to recognize the difference, and invested (literally) in telling both sides of the story. In fact, a typical bookseller’s description is the perfect example of this dichotomous relationship put to paper, with a description describing an item’s significance as an object traveling through time, as well as its place in history. Like a person, a book exists in conversation with its reader. What can it tell us now?

Slide: Hybrid Books

Certainly books with added materials or annotations are trying to tell us more. The first “hybrid book,” according to Eric White, Princeton’s rare books curator, was made up of “a single twelve-leaf quire [the Canon Missae, printed in Mainz by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer c. 1458] printed on vellum…designed to be bound into the middle of [a] host manuscript [any folio manuscript Missal].” This was a book conceived as a print and manuscript object. But as I looked at my own inventory, I wondered, couldn’t the term “hybrid” apply to a book with any kind or significant quantity of manuscript additions, or mixed media inserts, or parts dating from different time periods? With features distinguishing them as unique objects, these items offer many more possible avenues of study than a regular book. And isn’t it exciting to follow a trail of evidence that leads beyond the traditional touch points of author, illustrator, printer?

Here are some examples:

Slide: [Boyle, Robert]. The Art of Drawing and Painting in Water-Colours… London: J. Peele, 1731; [WITH] A Treatise on Miniature. [N.p., n.d.].

This is the first edition of a treatise on watercolor painting largely based on notes by Robert Boyle, bound with another treatise on miniature painting translated from Claude Boutet’s Traité de la peinture en mignature, or cribbed from its English translation (The Art of Painting in Miniature, 1729). [After this talk, in March 2019, the institution that had purchased the book in fact identified the second treatise as The School of Miniature, from the same year by the same publisher.] But this copy is interleaved with manuscript notes by an 18th-century artist or art student. The manuscript sections contain excerpts copied from other identifiable printed works as well as original notes, with tips like:“…Take a spoonful [of varnish] and put a bit of gunpowder in it, after set it on fire…and if it fire the gunpowder…it may be depended on as good…[!]”

Slide: Richard, A[chille]. Formulaire de Poche. Troisième Édition, Augmentée….Paris: Béchet Jeune, Libraire, 1824.

This is a doctor’s pocket manual listing remedies to treat various ailments. But this copy is enlarged with more than 60 pages of additional receipts by the doctor who owned it. Some of the notes are dated, indicating when the doctor used each remedy.

Slide: [Meyer, Jean]. Description du Jubilé de Sept Cens Ans de S. Macaire… Cérémonies, Solemnités, Cavalcade, Ornemens, & des Feux d’Artifice… Gand: Jean Meyer, [1767].

This is not a very rare book. It is not an expensive book. However, this copy, this unique copy, was grossly underestimated by the salespeople at the Belgian store where I got it. Clearly they looked up the title and priced it based on what they found in commerce. But what they missed!

It is, as the title says, a description of the 700th anniversary celebration of St. Macaire. The festival described here took place in Ghent May 30-June 15, 1767. The book is illustrated with 15 etched plates of which 11 folding. Awesome, but not, as it turns out, very rare. However, this copy is truffé, as the French say for expanded, with:

  • a printed certificate from 1767 on the transfer of the saint’s relics for the celebrations, signed and dated by the future bishop of Ghent [G[ovardus] G[erardus] van Eersel of St. Bavo’s Cathedral, 1771].
  • a hand-colored saint card printed on vellum affixed to the certificate by cloth cut from the relic’s covering
  • one leaf of manuscript notes by a later owner, dated 1840, on the bishop’s biography
  • an original drawing based on a lithograph of a similar cavalcade in Brussels
  • and another sheet of manuscript notes listing the order of events during the celebrations in 1767
  • Not to mention the marbled paper binding matches the Getty’s (a digitized version of which is viewable online), indicating it was probably original to this edition.

By the way, that we can compare images of books and bindings online is certainly something “new” in antiquarian bookselling.

Slide: “Ceremonial des Vestvres, et Professions, Pour les Religieuses de S. Vrsule de la Congregation de Paris.” [1668?]. [WITH]: Formulaire de Saluts…A l’usage des Religieuses de Sainte Ursule… Paris: Gilles Blaizot, 1670.

This is a religious formulary/instruction book for use by the nuns of a convent in Paris, interleaved with manuscript music corresponding to rituals outlined in the text. For instance, this is the music for the celebration of the patron saint of the convent, facing printed instructions for the same occasion. You can see this opening at p. 82 in the book, which I will pass around. The front matter of this book is lacking, perhaps why it was relegated to a low shelf and forgotten by the Parisian bookseller who sold it to me; but with this sort of thing I don’t think it matters all that much. That is the point here – in cases like this, where the imprint is even lacking altogether, the value of the object is not necessarily affected. It is complete unto itself. If anything, its value increases because this object is truly unique. This may give you an idea of what the French market will tolerate versus what the current American market values. When I bought it, I thought, hopefully, that with a little research, I could still figure out what the book is. I knew, regardless, that I would be unlikely to find any comparables!

[When I gave this talk in February 2019, I had not yet catalogued this item; but I can now confirm it is a unique print-and-manuscript volume combining two treatises printed for the Ursuline nuns of Paris plus manuscript music corresponding to the rituals outlined in the text. This book was most certainly used by one of the sisters in ceremonies, evidenced by candle wax stains on a number of leaves and occasional manuscript marginalia.]

If interest in blue-chip books is waning in favor of items like these, it follows then, that subject interests are also trending toward the less mainstream. You might have noticed that with the exception of the Ghent fête book signed by the future bishop, the books I have shown you so far were all added to or annotated by people whose names we don’t know. Social history, by definition, focuses on the experiences of these regular people, rather than the textbook-famous stories of major historical figures.

Slide: [Driesens, J.F.]. Practizyns Dag-Wyzer, ofte Gemakkelyken Kooplieden Hand- en Zak-Boek… Gend: J. Begyn, [1827-1830].

These are four consecutive day-books owned by one merchant, filled with his manuscript notes providing us today with more than four years of insight into his life: how and when he worked, with whom. These I bought from a dealer who did no advertising, had no internet. You had to contact him in person or else by phone, if you could get him at all. I got these on my first trip to his shop. On my next trip, I found that my friend had more of these. Actually, a lot more, owned by the same 19th-century merchant. I ended up buying all of them, bringing the total to 15. Can’t something like this, documenting daily life, unofficial, intimate, tell us so much more than a book printed on, say, the subject of 19th-century merchants?

Slide: Sandford, Mrs. John. Woman, in her Social and Domestic Character. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1831.

This is a character guide for women written by a woman. Other booksellers might have looked at this book and determined its value based on the usual factors: it is a first edition, in a red morocco binding, in good condition. I look at this book, which I found in a dealer’s basement, and one of the first things I see is the endpaper with two inscriptions. This book has evidence of being passed down from a friend to a bride-to-be; and then, more than thirty years later, from a father to his daughter. It embodies not one but two relationships, giving us an idea of its readership and use, something that increases its value. The dealer I bought it from did not mention this exchange in his description; but in mine, I emphasized it.

Slide: Boivin, [Marie-Anne Victoire], Mme. Veuve. Mémorial de l’Art des Accouchemens…Deuxième Édition, Corrigée et considerablement augmentée… [AND]: Série des Planches… Avec des Notes… Paris: Chez Méquignon l’âiné, père, Libraire de la Faculté de Médecine et des Hospices, 1817.

Here we have a graduating midwife’s prize set of an essential manual on midwifery. The first volume is signed by the author, a famous midwife, on the half-title verso to guard against counterfeits, as usual. In this copy, however, both volumes have prize bookplates signed in manuscript by three professors; and the set is accompanied by two manuscript certificates authorizing the recipient to work as a midwife, and awarding her these books. Who? What? When? Why? This set has a lot to offer a researcher on those fronts. And it has more than 130 plates, really quite stunning.

Of course dealers and collectors have long recognized the value of manuscript material, bookplates, and so forth; but it is this emphasis on what used to be considered supplementary that is so new in antiquarian bookselling today.

Last month, Heather O’Donnell asked us, “How can we recognize the work of aspiring collectors who don’t see their interests (or demographics) represented in the traditional antiquarian book world?” Along the same line, we might ask, “How can we collect and study the work of people who would otherwise be lost to history?” Is it a worthwhile endeavor to do so? I say, of course! My best finds have been the ones that shed light on the lives of people who might otherwise be forgotten. Not the famous midwife who composed this manual, but the mademoiselle who won these books upon completing her course.

In most cases, mine are not obviously valuable books like these; the author is not so famous, the imprint is not so early, the binding is not pristine. I have heard other dealers refer to “God’s copy” of a book on account of its mint-condition qualities. As a bibliophile I admire those books, too, but I prefer to work on books showing signs of life. I can add something to the descriptions of one-of-a-kind book objects, as opposed to perfect copies of well-known titles whose makers or contents may already be well-studied.

In the 1990s, sociologist George Ritzer coined the term “McDonaldization” to describe the globalizing effect of fast food, operating on efficiency and predictability. We could assert the book market at that time was operating analogously, treating books largely as commodities and not the specialized goods they essentially are. Many top clients of the past had checklists. They wanted what everyone wanted: modern first editions; paragons of early printing; the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare Folios. The values of those books remain predictable; investing in them might even be called efficient. But today, I see many clients pivoting away from books with “pop” appeal, toward books like these, with more bespoke qualities.

Slide: Poinsinet [de Sivry, Louis]. [Anacréon, Sappho, Moschus, Bion, Tyrthée, &c]. Nancy: Pierre Antoine, [1758].

Another example. This is a first edition of a rare translation of Greek poetry, this copy personalized with manuscript additions and pasted woodcut ornaments. It has frequent underlining and notes by the same owner who added woodcut decorations and re-arranged the text. The manuscript notes include comments on favorite poems, transcriptions, translations. The book was even custom-bound in patterned silk. Again, clues of the book’s past reaching beyond its imprint.

Slide: Moult, Thomas-Joseph. Prophéties perpétuelles… Bale: Chez Davilliers, [1834]. 

I found this at Clignancourt (the massive flea market just north of Paris). For the most part, Clignancourt is for tourists – yes, us! But, for browsing antiques, not, usually, for buying books. There is a designated book market, the Marché Dauphine; but the stands there don’t have too much to offer beyond general interest, and the few books in the antique stands are often showpieces – common or overpriced. The dealer I bought this from was a bit perplexed when I asked to see it. Even after I assured him I wanted it, he persisted in trying to convince me to ignore the condition and buy it for this woodcut, according to him its only redeeming feature. But, as I told him, it was actually the tattered binding that most intrigued me!

Such prophecy booklets are not uncommon. This one contains predictions to the year 2055 with horoscopes, gardening tips, and poetry, directed at workers, wine makers, grain and wine-merchants. However, these manuscript wrappers are, of course, unique: they appear to be an exercise in writing lines, repeating, in French, evil thoughts are an abomination to the Lord [“…pensees mauvaises sont un abomination au Seigneur….”]. Remarkably we can make out the name of the apparent scribe (and binder?), one Adélaide Sophie Flore le Grand(?), who may have been a religious schoolgirl writing lines as punishment for superstitious behavior – ironic, then, that her letter came to house a booklet of prophecies? Although her handwriting is neat and legible, it is difficult to decipher the rest, folded and faded in its bound form; but from the partial lines, I imagine there is much here to discover. Incidentally, I have traced no other copy with this particular imprint.

Slide: Mauguin, Georges. Napoleon et la Superstition; anecdotes et curiosités. Rodez: Carrère, 1946 [- ca. 1957].

Here we have the author’s copy of the first edition, with hundreds of clippings, photographs, excerpts, notes, and manuscript letters, including very personal matter, such as a funeral announcement for his wife juxtaposed with a letter by Napoleon to Josephine. The original single volume consisted of 239 pages; this copy was expanded to two volumes and more than twice the size. The author (Georges Mauguin, 1881-1961), was the editor in chief of a biannual periodical on Napoleon (Revue de l’Institut Napoléon), and most of his added material relates to occultism. An advertisement on the rear pastedown dated 1957 suggests he was at work on this for at least ten years after its initial publication. Here is just a sampling of the wild stuff he added: business cards for psychics, art reproductions, letters.

Slide: Bracha. Life Problems (Revaluation). Tel-Aviv: Palestine Publishing Co. Ltd. Printing Works for the Author, 1935.

This one was, I believe, the author’s copy, with her manuscript edits and cancels and tipped-in leaves. Modernity was all too much for her: city living, meat-eating, monogamy…! Her solutions? Outdoor activity, slaughtering your own meat, rampant procreation… Essentially the book boils down to a treatise on polygamy.

[Patin, Charles]. Formulaire Pharmaceutique à l’usage des ho[s]pitaux militaires…Tomo 4eme. [Riga: 20 March 1814].

The author (Charles Patin, d. 1867) of this pharmaceutical manuscript was a surgeon in Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which ended in November, 1812, with the Battle of Berezina. Berezina can be used to say “disaster” in French now, to give you an idea of the outcome. He was captured; and his own note on the second leaf of the manuscript indicates he penned it in prison in 1814 (according to French biographical sources he was released just a few months after this). The manuscript contains over 150 neatly written pages, some original, some copied from a recently published formulary for military hospitals [Formulaire Pharmaceutique a l’usage des Hôpitaux Militaires] sanctioned by Napoleon’s War Administration. Why it was then copied by hand in a military prison by one of Napoleon’s army surgeons is certainly an intriguing question that merits further research!

All of these items have one thing in common: they teach us about aspects of contemporary culture that perhaps didn’t make it into textbooks, or, as in the case of my next example, may have been purposefully ignored on account of controversy, gender politics, etc.

Slide: Exhibition Card

Let’s look at this list of artists. How many of you have heard Miro? And Max Ernst? Now, how many of you have heard of Nina Negri? I had never heard of her either, until I came across the materials I am about to describe. But I believe she is important.

Slide: Nina Negri artwork

Nina Negri was an Argentinian artist working in Paris at one of the most exciting times in modern art history. There is evidence she was active in the same circles as Duchamp, Arp, Miro, Ernst, and yet, we have never heard of her. Her paintings, drawings, and notes, a very small fraction of which we see here, can give us an idea of her experience in that milieu, not just as an artist, but as a foreign, female artist. I am only now starting my research on her career but I have been in touch with an art historian focusing on women of the Atelier 17, to which Negri belonged; and I have also been in contact with a London gallery selling paintings by her. There should and will be, I think, more historians digging into her background as interest in “forgotten” female artists increases.

We have only to look at recent exhibitions of women Surrealists, such as LACMA’s 2012 show [“In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” (January 29, 2012–May 6, 2012)], and Sotheby’s sales in 2015 [“Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism” (15 September 2015 – 06 November 2015, New York)] and this year [“Masterworks by Trailblazing Female Artists Spanning the 16th through the 19th Centuries” (part of the Master Paintings evening sale, Jan. 30, 2019)], to see the art world shifting in this direction. Such is the current zeitgeist, focusing on historically under-represented or marginalized groups across genres.

In December I visited the Barnes to see the Berthe Morisot exhibit. Talking to another museum-goer I realized why I knew so little about her, compared to her male peers: Morisot had, until recently, been excluded from the major art history textbooks. A successful Impressionist, she remains far less famous than her contemporaries (incidentally her husband, also a painter, more or less gave up his career so she could pursue hers).

I am not asserting that Nina Negri was a great artist; I am suggesting, however, that her story is worth telling, if for no other reason than it adds a new facet to a familiar narrative – in this case the Parisian arts scene.

How I found this large cache of her works is also a fun story. Soon after my arrival in Paris in 2015, a French friend told me about a fair happening just outside the city walls. I took the train there one gray morning. The event space was uncrowded, cold, humming with the complaints of French dealers, not a foreigner in sight. In other words, it was the perfect fair.

Slide: Surrealist card

I was going aisle by aisle looking at everything when I noticed, in a glass vitrine, this small card. I had seen similar materials (in much better condition) sell for high prices in New York so I decided to inquire. The French dealer was not in his booth and it took some asking around to find him drinking wine with friends at a nearby table. I had just about given up on my inquiry when he finally sauntered over. “This? You want to see this?” he asked skeptically. Yes, I said. He unlocked the case and handed the card to me. I’m sure he thought it wasn’t worth leaving his seat for, and up to that point I would have agreed with him, when something incredible happened. “You like this thing? I have more.” “More?” I asked. “Boxes, I show you.” And then, from behind the vitrine, under his exhibitor’s table, he pulled four large boxes filled not only with gallery materials like this card but also with original artwork – including the notebooks, prints, and drawings we have already seen – and even a large framed photograph of the artist

Slide: Nina Negri Portrait

I bought it all.

Given the way these materials were shoved under the table, I’m guessing the French dealer did not assign them the same importance I do. I think most French dealers are still largely invested in books and manuscripts with traditional appeal, which leaves room for an unsophisticated American like me, willing and in fact happy to sift through boxes of dusty papers with less than famous provenance. Which I did, frequently, at fairs and flea markets across Paris.

Slide: Parisian Markets

Without spending too much time talking about Parisian markets, let’s just say there’s a lot going on, all the time, and one could not possibly keep track of all the books and manuscripts being offered for sale daily.

Slide: Market Names

These are just a few terms you would have to know to even find them; and many events are not even listed.

Slide: [Forgery]. Mémoires de Madame la Marquise de Pompadour…Écrits par elle-même. Liege [London?]: s.n., 1766, 1774.

Here’s one of my favorite French book fair purchases. This also happened to be my very first sale from my first list as an independent bookseller in November 2015.

It is an early edition of volume one (1774) and first edition of volume two (1766) of Mme. De Pompadour’s apocryphal memoirs, bound alike in contemporary French manuscript fragments. These two volumes have so much appeal, ticking boxes not only for the traditional bookseller – famous forgery, listed in major bibliographies, Mme. De Pompadour –but also for today’s bookseller – it is weird, combining two editions in two volumes, with an awesome binding, not to mention it photographs really well.

Which leads me to tonight’s final topic: social media. When it comes to the internet, I am certainly no expert. I do not have an online business presence except a basic website and social media. In fact, I do not “sell” books online, but I have sold things as a result of posting on social media.

Of all the online platforms available today, Instagram has emerged as the booklover’s favorite. Perhaps this is no surprise, considering it is essentially an object-based, worldwide slideshow of great collections.

Slide: Instagram

Here is a snapshot of my own Instagram account. Many book dealers have accounts and it turns out to be a great form of marketing, market research, and brand awareness, purposeful or incidental. The accounts I “follow,” and my “followers,” include auction houses, librarians, archivists, dealers, doctoral candidates, conservation studios, artists, museums, and more.

Depending on how many “likes” you get on a photo, you could surmise the popularity of a particular item, or generally what types of things people react to. And, it’s a way to keep track of what your colleagues are advertising and the reactions they are getting. You can “follow” hashtags as well as people, meaning you can see whenever someone tags a photo #rarebook, for example; and in turn, by tagging posts, you can reach a much broader audience. (For instance, I recently tagged a domestic science item #realhousewives and connected to the Instagram accounts of thousands of avid TV watchers.) Why not? Merely by posting photos of what you are working on, you can get interest from potential customers.

Instagram also has a built-in messaging system, which allows correspondence about particular photos in the public captions or in direct messaging. In a recent exchange, for example, I got real-time help translating a note that I found in a Belgian almanac’s vellum wallet binding from someone at a museum in the Netherlands.

Slides: Wallet Bindings and Instagram DM

Slide: [Pharmaceutical Manuscript]. Codex de Rebus Pharmaceuticis 1787. [N.p., but France or Belgium].

One more, in honor of Valentine’s Day, that I sold via Instagram. It is, essentially, a Love Doctor’s Vade Mecum, with recipes for aphrodisiacs, alcohols, aromatics, bonbons, and, yes, birth control. I found it at a store in Belgium, perched in a case alongside a group of modern volumes. Apparently whoever shelved it decided it belonged in the medical section of the store rather than the rare book cases – and thank goodness, because I doubt it would have escaped the eye of any of the city’s dealers had it been elsewhere in the store. The manuscript binding is an earlier French legal manuscript concerning a deceased woman named Catharine. Social history at its best?

But, all told, my business model is pretty traditional: I buy at auction, fairs, from other dealers; I catalogue my books; I create lists; and, hopefully, I sell things via list, private offer, or visit. So, what’s so new in this kind of antiquarian bookselling?

Slide: Used Books

Many of these are not “fine,” or even very rare, but they are unique. As institutions and private collectors complete their holdings of the world’s most famous books, the market for “unique” objects such as these grows stronger. What’s left to study, when a book’s contents are online? What can we learn from a book object? These are the questions we need to be asking as booksellers today. This in no way decreases the value of famous books; but it may increase the value of “regular” books. Annotated books. Cheaply printed books, which would have had a totally different trajectory than expensively produced books. The books that may have been less famous, but no less prized by their owners.

Slide: Final Reflections

What’s popular now? Hybrid books, with materials distinguishing them as unique objects. Books showing social histories, signs of the people using them and changing them (or, books about what’s happening behind-the-scenes. Domestic cookery, for example). And social media, a way for us to share, compare, and sell. In conclusion, let us return for a moment to the definition of social history, which focuses on the life experiences of regular people. Is not social media itself a form of social history in the making? We are documenting our own lives all the time. Looking at Instagram, and looking at the objects that are popular today, it is not hard to see what the modern collector finds most desirable: representations of “real” life, ours and others’.

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NYC Book Fair, Take 2

It’s been one week since the New York book fairs. Invoices are (mostly) done, packages are (mostly) mailed, and I have (mostly) recovered from the work and excitement; so now I can sit down and write about it all! This was my second time at the NYC Book and Ephemera show. I am proud to say ZARB once again made the “highlights” list in FB&C and that my book fair list did well.

This year the show expanded to two days in a new location (new since the last time I exhibited, in 2017). We were able to stay in the same hotel as the fair location, which made things significantly easier in terms of transportation and timing. We arrived Thursday night to attend the Armory preview and get an early start Friday. Even with plenty of time to set up, I scrambled to see what other dealers had brought and made a few purchases Friday afternoon, worked until the last minute to get everything just right in my own booth…and still arrived at 6am the next morning to finish before doors opened at 8.

One of my favorite purchases was this 1852 playbill printed on silk with a beautiful lace border, which I bought Friday and sold Saturday:

IMG_6162

Saturday there was a mad rush at opening and happily the energy continued through most of the day. Many librarians and dealers visited, some I knew, others I knew of but hadn’t met until now. (There was a point when I felt I had been transported back to London for all the English accents around, and that was lovely!) Talking with everyone — exhibitors and visitors — was certainly a highlight of the fair for me.

Of the items I sold, the “Femmes Prisionnières” poster (pictured below in both before and after shots) is the one I’ll most miss. It was a list of women imprisoned at Versailles following their failed march there in 1871, after Napoleon III’s surrender to Otto von Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian War. And it even listed the ages of the women who marched, the oldest being over 70! I loved not only the way it looked on my wall, but also what it signified.

As in the past, such unique/controversial/visually striking material did the best — and nuns/(religious/rebel) women. Love those nuns. All this confirms what I see as emerging trends in antiquarian bookselling: the collectability of hybrid books/unique objects, and interest in social history subjects (in fact I gave a talk at the Philobiblon Club of Philadelphia on just these topics this past February).

What didn’t sell? I can never seem to sell much publisher’s cloth or Americana, which I suppose is just as well, since there are other dealers who are specialists in those fields. But why don’t those types of books fly off the shelves at book fairs, especially books with local interest (the ones I have are not very expensive)? I’ll never understand it.

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Before…

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and after!

On Sunday, the Satellite Show was much less busy, at least for us antiquarians. The Booklyn Artists’ Book Fair, on the other hand — and the other side of the ballroom — seemed to be busier (and the exhibit “Celluloid Babylon”: The Photography of William Mortensen). I wandered over toward the end of the day, and was sidetracked by a few last-minute purchases from dealers on the way, but from what I did see of the art fair and the exhibit, it was all very striking!

All in all, it was an exhausting and good weekend. And so nice to be back in the swing of things after a book fair hiatus. Thank you, everyone who visited!

 

 

 

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New York City Book and Ephemera Fair This Weekend!

Hello! For the second time, ZARB will be exhibiting at the NY Book and Ephemera Show (the “Satellite Show” at the Sheraton Times Square, 53rd St. and 7th Ave.) and we couldn’t be more excited — and busy cataloguing up to the last minute. The fair takes place this coming weekend, March 9-10 (Saturday and Sunday). See our events page for details!

Look for ZARB at booth 106-B, near the entrance!

Lots of “new” old books and manuscripts to see, list forthcoming. Here’s a sneak peek…

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Happy holidays!

Just like that, it’s December, and time for this year’s holiday book list. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy the rest of the year. As hoped, my family and I visited Paris again for a couple weeks this fall, and I was able to shop for books as well as catch up with dear friends. The weather was shockingly sunny and H&M featured William Morris patterns (see below).

We visited our old haunts and even made it to the Foire de Chatou — an enormous antiques fair in a Parisian suburb — for an entire day. There were only a handful of booksellers, but between there and in Paris I found some great things, coming soon to another book list when I can find the time to catalogue them!

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For now, I wish everyone happiest of holidays!

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RBMS

Tomorrow morning I’ll be on my way to Iowa City for my first RBMS conference! I look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new friends, and catching up on all things rare-book-and-manuscript related.

To all the attendees who may be reading, thank you, and see you soon! I hope you’ll attend the session on “Spooky Books” sponsored by yours truly. It promises to be an engaging discussion filled not only with stories but also with strategies, i.e., “…how we can potentially use the stories that are told about our libraries and books to engage our patrons, clients, and fans in meaningful ways, drawing those who hunger to be haunted into deeper research or more profound interactions with the items in our collections.” It’s a methodology that applies to bookselling as much as librarianship and I can’t wait to hear everyone’s opinions — and ghost stories!

 

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NYC Book & Ephemera Fair 2017

It was about 1 am when I finally went to sleep Wednesday night, March 8 (more accurately, Thursday morning, March 9) after finishing my last few book descriptions, packing everything just so in plastic bins and boxes, and Tetris-ing everything into our little car for the drive from Philadelphia to NYC. The trip normally takes two hours or less in midday traffic, but Google maps indicated it would take a solid three if not more that weekday morning. So I left promptly at 6 am for my 9:30 load-in – and was still late! On the way a bookseller friend called me at a particularly dangerous Manhattan intersection and I must have been a pretty picture of a zombie yelling at the merging traffic and my speakerphone, “Yes that’s great see you later looking forward to it no don’t worry about what time I have to go PEOPLE ARE CRAZY!”

What did I learn? Don’t schedule load-in so early for a city fair, if you can help it!

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Outside the satellite book fair during set-up on Thursday

As soon as I pulled up to the load-in area outside the venue (St. Ignatius on the Upper East Side), I was greeted by friendly porters who unloaded my car for me. AMAZING! Now all that was left to do was check in at the hotel and park the car. I first went to a garage nearby, but the rate was $50 for the day. The DAY! I lived in NYC long enough to know there are way better options, but I’ve also lived outside of NYC long enough at this point to think I know better and be very, very wrong. I circled a few blocks and ended up in metered parking, much cheaper, but also strictly time-limited to an hour. You can guess where this is going. I got caught up unpacking my books and socializing back at the fair and completely forgot about refilling the meter. I rushed back two hours later to find a bright orange parking ticket on the windshield. The garage would have been cheaper!

So what did I learn? Just pay the garage!

Finally by late afternoon I had beautified my booth, caught up with colleagues, taken a quick look around neighboring displays, and zipped back to the hotel, where I promptly fell facedown onto the bed exhausted. Soon it was time for the Armory show preview, the fanciest of the fair week activities. I swapped my flannel for a blazer and high-heeled it to the Park Avenue Armory. Right at the entrance I ran into David Szewczyk of PRBM and Peter Kraus of Ursus, both former employers, and the Ursus booth in its usual splendor. After chatting with Adam, Olivia, and James Cummins across the aisle, I wandered, starting with the perimeter. The hardest part about the Armory fair is zeroing in on items that I can buy now, and not getting distracted by all the museum-worthy books and manuscripts on display. Here’s where my art history past and bookseller present come into conflict. It’s good the fair is more than one day, because it’s really too large to take in at once and still talk to friends and make good purchases. I can’t say I have totally mastered this yet! The preview was quite busy and the wine was flowing – but not for me, as I headed back uptown early to rest before my big debut.

Thursday morning, March 10, began in the dark. Doors of St. Ignatius were set to open at 6 am to bleary-eyed book dealers in search of bagels, coffee, and pre-fair buys, and 8 am to the public. I had planned to walk from the hotel to St. Ignatius, but opted for a cab as soon as I stepped outside into the cold. My cabbie informed me a blizzard was coming, which was no surprise. We got to the church a few minutes early so I asked if I could stay in the heated car a few minutes longer, time we spent talking about his unusual schedule of 1 am – 1 pm to catch the bar crowds; where to get the best coffee and croissant near my hotel (Yura on Madison – I tried it the next day – delicious!); and how our country is doomed.

The satellite book fair, thankfully, was the opposite of doomed. Despite the weather, we saw good foot traffic all day. I caught a glimpse of a line out the door in the morning, and I was busy in my own booth from opening to close. Most of what I sold was visually striking in some way and/or unique. I had a few inexpensive publisher’s bindings front and center which I brought thinking the fair would be the perfect venue to sell them, but at the end of the day, they were still in my booth, whereas I had sold a pair of 17th-c. broadsides and a large scrapbook of Victorian fashion clippings. Everyone seemed more interested in the rare visual stuff (and, for the most part, the more expensive stuff). Complicated items in foreign languages were less successful.

Overall, I was very happy with the results, and I would certainly do another fair! Thank you to all the friends, librarians, dealers, and former colleagues who visited!

 

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Bonne année!

Very belated Happy New Year! 2017 will be busy. I’m getting ready now for my first book fair…

New York City Book and Ephemera Fair
Friday, March 10, 8 am – 7 pm

Wallace Hall
Church of St. Ignatius Loyola
980 Park Avenue (between 83rd and 84th St.)
New York City

…which means for the next month I’ll be selecting books and manuscripts to bring, cataloguing like crazy, and gathering supplies in preparation for my debut. The rigmarole is somewhat familiar since I’ve manned a few booths over the years working for booksellers at the Armory show, happening simultaneously at 67th St., but it’s very different going solo and having to think of all the little details yourself: among other things, the flame retardancy of tablecloths, which we all must buy fitted to cover our display tables.

I’ve got a million checklists and too little time! C’est la vie.

Along with the frenzy comes the promise of seeing colleagues from faraway places, buying and selling, and being back in NYC for a few days. I’m super excited to be sharing my booth with Edmund Brumfitt Rare Books of London, a longtime friend in the trade.

In other news, I just published my latest list in anticipation of Valentine’s Day (scroll to the bottom of the “Shop Our Catalogues” page). There’s still time to get that esoteric gift you’ve been seeking!

  • libertine short stories in Italian
  • poetry in Provençal
  • an unexpurgated French edition of the Kama Sutra

You’ll find all of these and more.

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New chez nous

Back-to-school season brings back memories of rentrée in Paris, and writing a similarly-timed blog post there last year. Now I’m writing from Philadelphia, PA, new home of Zoe Abrams Rare Books!

We moved back from Paris about a month ago and I just finished my next list of books for sale (stay tuned to the “shop” tab!), gathered from travels in France and further afield, all broadly concerning education: dictionaries, manuals, schools, etiquette, languages, and prize bookplates and bindings awarded to excellent students.

One of the most interesting items has to do with phys ed for 19th-century women and children. Here is the description with a photo I took (not the most graphically exciting, let’s admit it, so I’m adding a couple more photos of other items at the end):

[DAURIAT, Louise]. Discours prononcé par Madame Louise Dauriat, a la séance d’ouverture du Gymnase Civil et Orthopédique, le 6 Juillet 1834. [Paris]: Félix Malteste, [1834].

8vo, 20.4 x 12.8 cm. 16 pp. (small marginal waterstain on one page). Bound in recent marbled boards with printed label pasted onto front cover. Inscribed by the author on the title-page, “Á M. Guyot avocat, de la/ part de l’auteur.”

FIRST EDITION of this speech delivered by Louise Dauriat at the opening of a gymnasium founded by Spaniard Francisco Amoros (1770-1848), who was largely responsible for introducing children’s physical education in France. Mme. Dauriat advocates for the physical education of women as well as men, citing Spartan culture as an example and quoting Plutarch, “Elles faisaient connaître…qu’elles étaient capables de réussir aussie bien que les hommes…” (p. 5). She goes on to suggest that women’s moral education is way too limited, as is their instruction, or at least in extreme disproportion with their capabilities; and their physical education is totally “nulle.” One solution is for mothers to take responsibility for their children’s physical education. Most radically, Dauriat suggests young women should not marry until they have attained “toutes les forces dont elles sont capables” [all of the forces of which they are capable].

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Discours prononcé par Madame Louise Dauriat, inscribed by her (Paris, 1834).

It turns out this pamphlet is not only avant-garde for its time but also quite rare. I was unable to trace it in any library at last search. I dare you to try (let me know)!

Here are some other items you can expect to find in my latest list (PS – in case it wasn’t obvious, EVERYTHING IS FOR SALE! Please write to info@zoethebookseller.com for more information, pictures, or to sign up for the ZARB mailing list, delivering occasional micro-catalogues directly to your inbox).

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Histoire de Pierre le Grand (Rouen, ca. 1895). Inscribed as being awarded to a student for first prize in arithmetic.

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Not the most practical, but certainly the most handy French-English Dictionary (Glasgow, ca. 1900).

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Dernière minute

Yesterday we finally visited Giverny. It’s one of those places that’s been on our must-see list from the start, but we never found time until now, as time is running short. We booked our tickets home for mid-August.

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It was a typical day in and outside Paris, rainy and sunny at short intervals. The leaves in Monet’s garden were big and green and the flowers were planted in lush processions and when we walked around the pond of waterlilies we realized that Monet must have been quite wealthy. (He was.)

The house was crowded with visitors snapping photos, mainly of the big sitting room with replicas of 59 paintings, and in the kitchen, with its blue tiles and long rows of copper pots. Something that didn’t get a lot of attentionIMG_5885 from visitors was the collection of Japanese woodblock prints lining the walls of the other rooms. I was reminded of an exhibit at the Musée Guimet – Miroir du désir – Images de femmes dans l’estampe japonaise – that I saw last week. (Looking for it on the temporary exhibit level of the museum I stumbled into a survey of Araki photographs. There is more than one temporary exhibition level at the Guimet.)

In our last month we’re squeezing in a lot of sightseeing and reading Hemingway, who at one time lived just around the corner from us, while trying to wrap up work obligations. I managed to bid successfully online at a country auction about a month ago but for weeks couldn’t get anyone on the phone who could accept payment or ship my lots to Paris.

Wednesday, June 29

Me [in French]: “Bonjour, I bid at auction on [date] and would like to pay for and collect my lots.”

Auction House: “The person you need to speak to is at an auction. Call back tomorrow.”

Thursday, June 30

Me [in French]: “Bonjour, I bid at auction on [date] and would like to pay for and collect my lots.”

Auction House: “The person you need to speak to is at an auction. Call back tomorrow.”

Me: “Excuse me, do you know what time? Because I tried yesterday and was told to call today.”

Auction House [disgruntled, in French]: “Madame, you can try in the afternoon after 3pm.”

[Another week of similar exchanges, then] Sometime around July 7

Me [in French]: “Bonjour, I bid at auction on [date] and would like to pay for and collect my lots. And I don’t want to pay for the storage fee because I’ve been trying to reach you about this for two weeks.”

Auction House: “You’re calling the wrong number. You need to call the billing department.”

After two or three more phone calls and email exchanges, and seriously considering renting a car to pay and collect in person, I finally telephoned at the right time on the right day and got the right person, who listened patiently to my largely incoherent French and took care of everything at once.

Still on the to-do list: packing. This has posed a particularly nightmarish conundrum. Question: If one wants to send four shelves of books home, wants to track them and receive them in the same condition, but doesn’t care so much about when they arrive, what is the best (cheapest, safest) option? Answer: forget shipping and buy another suitcase, which will cost much less in airline fees than sending five or six pre-paid or personally packed boxes via Colissimo International. The fabled M-bag apparently doesn’t exist anymore, or if it does, no one knows where to get it and more importantly no one knows how to ship it.

So onward we go, barreling back towards Philadelphia with all our accumulated belongings and hoping everything gets there, eventually.

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Library at the Musée Guimet

 

 

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Friends in the Field

Just got a nice shout-out from my friend Dylan Rogers, classicist extraordinaire, on his blog https://dylankrogers.net.

He writes, “I started the month in Paris. This was my first visit to this majestic city, and I explored it with an old friend, Zoe Abrams, who has been there this past year, working for her own bookselling company, Zoe Abrams Rare Books. We had an amazing time exploring book markets, gardens, churches, and food. At the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Fontaine de Medici (1630) was a wonderful way entrée into thinking about modern water-displays…” Indeed it was great to see my old friend and learn about his research (on fountains). Thanks, Dylan!

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Petit déjeuner

Early morning in Paris. Rainwater on little round tables sparkling in the sun at an outdoor cafe; an aproned young woman arranging bouquets of baguettes at the corner boulangerie; a crescendo of buzzing scooters and banging trash trucks (finally the latest strike is over).

In August we are going home to Philadelphia. I’m now working on what will probably be my last list of items for sale before we take off: albums and almanacs. These range from a 19th-century chronicle of a Belgian dining club to a collection of photographic postcards of actresses from the turn of the century. On my way to work this morning, via my kitchen, I began picturing our experience abroad as if I were already back in Philadelphia, sorting through a wunderkammer of memories. Behold the electric tea kettle on the white tile counter. Boil the water for the French press. Open the tiny refrigerator. Smell the leftover Époisse. Rush to the living room window facing the street. Sit at the desk with no drawers.

photo (1)There are many things we will import. The electric tea kettle, for one. My metric postage scale from the Office Depot on rue Monge and my rolling pin from Dehillerin, where Julia Child shopped. Lists of what cheeses and wines we like best, scribbled onto receipts from Androuet and into a booklet from this year’s Salon des vins at Champerret. Souvenir magnets and postcards from Stonehenge, Keukenhof, Lapland, etc. Paper directories for SLAM and ABA, and other ephemera collected at book fairs. A folding linen-backed map of Paris purchased at a flea market near the Opéra metro.

Our Paris has already acquired a mythic quality, like any absurdly great pause from “normal” life, and we haven’t even left yet! (Here’s one of my favorite recordings that perhaps best captures the nostalgic mood around the home office these days.)

Concerning ZARB, I’ve developed a routine suited particularly to life here, where the next bookseller is just around the corner and the next auction is in five minutes. Although the U.S. market is less concentrated, it’s there in force, bien sur — and anyway modern technology means the only real concern with buying internationally is condition and shipping — so ZARB will translate just fine. And, hopefully, we’ll be back someday.

 

 

 

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Upgrading

Well, you may have noticed the new social media icons on the ZARB sidebar. After resisting the internet for several months, this old-fashioned lady finally upgraded to an iPhone. Meaning you will now be inundated with photos of Paris and fantastic finds posted in real time. Pas mal! Find us on Facebook at Zoe Abrams Rare Books, and follow Zoe (and ZARB) @zoethebooksellr on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr for the latest!

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That’s Zoe! Just kidding. Photo courtesy of Albertina Museum, Vienna.

 

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Lesson No. 1: Trust Your Instincts

When my parents bought our house, they were the second couple to see it. The first couple went home that night to mull over the work that needed to be done, the long-term costs, the imperfections. When they came back the next morning ready to dive in, they were the second couple to do so: my parents had decided to take it on the spot.

It’s a valuable lesson and one I’m still learning. Yesterday at the Bastille Brocante I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at one lovely book, weighing the cost, condition, imperfections. Today when I went back to buy it, cash in hand, someone (an American!) had beat me to it. Now I’ll have more in the coffers for the Olympia fair at the end of the month but I am sad. Whitney-Houston-singing-“I Will Always Love You”-sad. Why?

1. Wow, great book. Will be missed.

2. It was mine yesterday.

3. I let it get away.

A similar thing happened at auction about a month ago. I was previewing a sale at Drouot that turned out to be utterly boring save for one lot. It wasn’t in the group I went there to see, but the cataloguing was so enticingly brief that I decided to take a look while I was there. Reader, it was a treasure trove. I was lost in space leafing through it until I felt eyes behind me and turned around to face a dealer I see at Drouot ALL THE TIME looking over my shoulder. Right then I knew I had already lost. He could outbid me no problem. Long story short, day of sale, the price kept climbing and I gave up too soon. Always one bid behind. Is this not a metaphor for life?

On the bright side, it appears I am attracted to salable stuff. But the real point here is that the book business takes guts. Or trust. Or however you want to describe wanton spending of time and money with no guarantee of a sale. The risk-return tradeoff can be quite subjective.

So, lesson learned: as far as self-doubt goes, let’s stop that right now. (And, let’s always put things we want on hold.)

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Shelves at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. Or, Aspirations.

 

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C’est ZARB!

A French friend told me that the acronym for Zoe Abrams Rare Books – “ZARB” – is verlan (slang formed by reversing syllables, e.g., l’envers) for “bizarre.” Fitting! The past six months have been a whirlwind of auctions, flea markets, brocantes, book fairs, dealer visits across Europe, and lots of exciting material coming and going here at ZARB, our bizarre little enterprise. With two lists down and a third in the works, I’ve learned a lot. For example, did you know cliché is a printing term? From clicher, to make a stereotype, which is also a printing term meaning a plate made from composed type. I’m not the type to go on pedantically so… never mind.

What is a typical ZARB day like? I go to the office as early as possible, meaning I make coffee in the kitchen and then shuffle to my desk a few feet away. With such a short commute, there’s more time for my favorite activities: searching sale catalogs and, if I find something for a client or inventory, or just if I think it’s worth going, visiting book venues across Paris. Depending on what’s in my email I could be out the door and off to an auction, fair, market, or shop, sometimes with very little notice. Or, I could be at my desk all day cataloguing the material I already have. When I’ve done enough writing and research at home, I take my laptop to the Bibliothèque Nationale, a research palace with excellent vending machines, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a forest in the center of the building, and a movie theater across the plaza.

Since almost the moment we arrived in Paris from New York, my husband and I have been traveling a lot. When we’re in a foreign city, I spend all day at local bookshops or markets. It is really fun but it is also real work! There’s a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time; I try to look at everything but I buy very selectively. Clothes get dirty, occupational hazard. At the end of each trip, I enter my new inventory in my database and calculate costs. When inventory reaches critical mass, I make a list of items to sell. Of course there are also special books I’m saving on the shelf, but, as a wise colleague once said, “it isn’t a business if you aren’t selling.” To that end I also frequently make offers hors serie.

Most of my routine I learned from working with and watching other dealers, to whom I owe a lot. However every small business is different and I love being on my own schedule. À Paris, mon rêve! The bibliosphere here is incredible. So many bookshops, you could barely visit them all in a year; so many sales, you wish you could be in three places at once; so many catalogs, you could spend days reading them. At some point you have to prioritize and actually sell something to fund the next adventure — which is exactly what I’ll be doing today!

I leave you with this rubber stamp wisdom:

“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.

 

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Freud’s waiting room. Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna.

 

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Inaccessible books in ready-to-wear. Le Bon Marché, Paris.

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Vous êtes ici

Vous Etes Ici

Bonjour tout le monde! We’ve had unbelievably good weather (if a bit chilly) since arriving in Paris two weeks ago, but today is rainy, so I’m trading my sneakers for slippers and catching up on the computer.

The social media silence is also due to my cell phone situation. Being an old-fashioned and irrational type, I resisted acquiring a European plan for my iPhone, insisting instead on using a dinky Nokia I purchased in London eight years ago. It is not a smart phone — more like a walky talky (or, “talkie-walkie,” as the French would say) — but it inspires great nostalgia and wonder amongst friends and strangers. I have no way to post pictures or pithy comments online in real time, and no Google maps to guide me, but I am alive. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

IMG_0380Armed with only an outdated French pocket dictionary care of my grandmother, and a glossy street map from a bookseller friend back home, I set out to find my fortune. It turns out there are many bookstores in Paris. In fact, there are so many, plus les bouquinistes, and markets, that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I took the train to Lille.

Once a year, in this town just south of the Belgian border, thousands of vendors and millions of visitors converge for one weekend at “the biggest flea market in the world.” I had read about the Braderie last Friday in the morning newspaper distributed in the metro. My French is pas tres bien, but I understood enough to know it was THE PLACE TO BE. I ran to catch a train from Gare du Nord for the opening on Saturday.

The Lilliputians aren’t kidding around. It took an hour to navigate from the Lille Flandres train station to my hotel in the city center; not because I couldn’t access Google maps, but because of the throngs of scouting, peddling, pushing crowds. When I finally parked my belongings in my tiny room with impossible curtains and a stubborn lock, I had to lie down for ten minutes. The U.S. Open was on TV, but the French cameraman had focused at such an angle that the ball was never visible. I gathered my wallet, my phones, and my strength, and ventured outside.

Physiologie du FlaneurThe bookstands were few and far between. Literally, there were many kilometers of vendors. I was distracted, respectively, by sizzling waffles, vintage sherpa coats, and Euro-emblazoned underwear, while looking for the main event. I found it on a little side street near the Port de Paris: two professional booksellers, set up back-to-back, far from the madding crowd. Cautious as usual, I didn’t spend hundreds of Euros on the spot, but I took their business cards and promised in my best French to be in touch about a few titles.

I did buy a book in the designated paper and book showcase lining La Vieille Bourse; I couldn’t resist the cover art on a dictionary of dreams for 5 Euro (interesting subject, too). I also found a stockpile of cartes postales at the stand of a paper dealer near the Parc Jean-Baptiste Lebas. I’ve always loved old pictures, especially black-and-white booklets of postcards with images of locals milling around famous sites. Not the bulky albums with individual cards inserted, but the self-contained, site-specific booklets.

Odd spine stampsOn a codicological note, I spotted some intriguing anomalies, including this test (?) spine (left), gilt-stamped all over in multiple directions. More discoveries pictured below.

Yoga Book

Yoga book from 1955.

Travel Scrapbook

Scrapbook documenting a couple’s trip to Switzerland with their tickets and souvenirs.

Rebus

One of many rebuses punctuating the text of this periodical.

Flea Models

Participants in the Braderie de Lille.

Opera lenses

Opera lenses wrapped in hand-dated papers.

Shop Window with Books

Clothing store or library?

Back home in Paris, la rentrée means fashion week is soon upon us. Books and Brooklyn are the prevailing themes this year. Le Bon Marché, arbiter of style, issued an entire catalogue of Brooklyn-chic clothing and housewares, including sets of glasses from Fishs Eddy selling at a whopping 45 Euro, if I remember correctly. (The catalogue was an insert in a magazine, which, alas, I have since recycled via the very particular French system of multi-colored garbage bins all destined for the same heap). In fact, the department store is currently holding an entire Brooklyn Rive Gauche sale. Meanwhile, Saint-Germain shop windows are filled with stacks of books and brooding models in loose tweeds. If not for the language barrier, you’d think we were locals, non?

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Firsts

Soon I’ll be in Paris, blogging about books and adventures abroad. For my first post, however, here’s a review I wrote in New York City, shortly after returning from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado Springs…

On the first day of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, Terry Belanger stood solemnly in front of our class and commanded us to “follow the rulebook with supine acquiescence.” We were feverishly scribbling collational formulae in our notebooks as he added, “The fact that it is ridiculous is totally irrelevant.” The group let out a communal chuckle and went on copying the ever-expanding equations projected on the wall.

Terry was referring specifically to the Ur-text of bibliography by Fredson Bowers, a rulebook every cataloguer knows and loves to bemoan; but the general idea of “following the rules” served us well throughout the week. The CABS faculty, all authorities on books and bookselling, gave us many rules to work and live by, including: hone in on and own your specialty, find your voice, and identify your ideal customer. Inherent in these directions is the notion that bookselling is an individualistic endeavor; every bookseller has her own way of doing things that may not work for the next guy. Some rules, however, apply across the board, regardless of personal modus operandi: be patient, don’t be a jerk, always look at books closely, and sell, sell, sell.

An economist might envision the CABS microcosm teeming with competitive species chasing the same prey. Au contraire! Booksellers are the first to tell you that each one of us has a niche and our diversity keeps the community alive. Common interest in books unites rather than divides us, or “Amor librorum nos unit,” as the ABAA motto reads. This at least partially explains the astonishing generosity of the CABS faculty, who put their lives on pause for a week to teach potential “competitors” tricks of the trade; and accounts for the twelve separate scholarship funds for CABS students. I received an ABAA scholarship to attend, and will do my very best to pay it forward.

In my childhood home we had a coffee mug with a Far Side cartoon of a frazzled scientist pointing at a formula on a blackboard above the caption, “Einstein discovers that time is actually money.” This revelation won’t be news to any bookseller, but it has new meaning for me as I find myself with more time than money, i.e., being self-employed. No amount of work experience – assisting some of the best dealers in the trade – adequately prepares you for being your own boss. Osmosis only gets you so far. CABS is the missing piece, a boot camp for like-minded people communicating in the same specialized language and helping each other achieve success.

It’s no wonder that dealers at the head of thriving businesses still flock to Colorado Springs for a week of intensive study and conversation with colleagues from across the globe (there was a particularly large contingent of Australians, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met). At CABS, you can ask any question on the subject of books and receive thoughtful answers from some of the greatest minds in the “bibliomundo,” as my classmate Cynthy Buffington calls the community of booksellers, -collectors, and -preservers. There is always more to learn, and adaptability behooves us all.

This year’s guest speakers were Katherine Reagan, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Cornell, home of the nation’s premier Hip Hop Collection; and Garrett Scott, dealer in obscurities with a focus on “books and pamphlets on dead-end byways of American thought,” including the topics Utopia, doom, sex, and “old weird America.”

Boring, right?

Katherine’s keynote address on “Why Curators Love Booksellers” set a collegial, humorous tone for the week while imparting valuable advice on building relationships with librarians. She also reminded us that scholarship drives institutional collecting, so booksellers should stay attuned to changing tastes. Although Hip Hop culture may not appeal to everyone, no one can honestly deny its cultural significance.

Garrett’s mid-week talk, peppered with slides and anecdotes, made us all grateful to be in the same profession, which he likened to the D.I.T.C. (“Digging in the Crates Crew,” a New York Hip Hop group that made its name sampling old records). Booksellers like Garrett constantly “remix” old material in new ways. As Katherine suggested a couple of days earlier, this might be the best approach ever to long term success in the book business. Our mission as booksellers, should we choose to accept it, is to “rescue forgotten voices,” and retell their stories in such a way as to “make the buyer feel the same emotion you did when you bought the thing” (Garrett). More than one of us cried tears of joy during Garrett’s inspirational, aspirational description of his personal philosophy. I even overheard an esteemed librarian wondering, briefly, why he ever switched sides.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “You must have the cheapest copy, best copy, or only copy” (Bill Reese, et al.). Here’s an additional sampling of pithy advice from the week in Colorado: “Don’t trust, do verify” (Nina Musinsky), “Independence is everything” (Sally Burdon), “Make lists” (Dan DeSimone), and “Don’t mess with the archive” (Steve Smith). Sadly, Nina, Sally, Dan, and Steve all surrendered their CABS lanyards this year. Who can imagine the week without their bonhomie, not to mention Nina’s expertise on early books; Sally’s marketing strategies; Dan’s firsthand tips on selling to libraries; and Steve’s inside scoop on acquisition policy? It’s clear from their rapport in and outside the classroom that the CABS teachers enjoy the seminar just as much as the students, and the four departing faculty will be missed terribly by everyone. Listening to them and Lorne Bair, Brian Cassidy, Terry Belanger, and Rob Rulon-Miller talking shop, you got a sense not only of the group’s command of the book business, but also of their camaraderie, built over time and transactions.

On the last day of CABS many students expressed that they would have difficulty describing the week to people back home. At the closing dinner, John Bell was inspired by his conversation with Lorne to ascend the podium and read “Poetic Terrorism,” by Hakim Bey. “Pick someone at random & convince them they’re the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune…,” he implored. “[They] will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.” There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to the week. Graduates of CABS share in a vast sum of knowledge and friendship that will enhance both our careers and our lives.

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