Books from Libraries and Museums

Do you own any books that are withdrawn library books?  I do.  There’s something inherently grungy-seeming about them, even if they are in pristine condition.  You know that more people than usual have touched your book if it is withdrawn, even if it was never checked out.  There are also a lot of library detritus left over on the books.  Obviously, there is the Withdrawn stamp, usually on the edges and title page, but there are also various other markings, from glued-down Brodart plastic on the dust jackets to library bookplates and stamps to check-out sheets or computer punch cards to those esoteric markings made in pencil by librarians for cataloging purposes in the prelims.

Some people hate having to buy a copy of a book that was once housed in a library, especially a circulating library.  I admit to a bit of a bias myself, especially if the edges of a book are well-stained by the thumbs of many a reader.  However, sometimes former library books really can be the best copies available because a librarian sometime in the past has cared enough about making sure the book is useful to preserve it.  I love old paperbacks bound into sturdy buckram hardcover.  That type of cloth will not rip easily and is very hard to stain.  Or consider antiquarian pamphlets or ephemera that a librarian somewhere has carefully preserved in a cardboard folder or a plastic slip.  Sometimes they even make carefully fitted boxes to house the precious book within!

Library books, especially those from uncirculating research libraries or from museums, can also be exceptionally rare.  A specialty library can house one of only a few copies of a particular very specific report ever made.  We recently purchased a large amount of books from the Museum of Man in San Diego, whose collection of anthropological texts was truly amazing.  (I imagine that a few of the librarians were weeping as they were deaccessioning their collection.)  I’ve already cataloged things from this collection that are so scarce that I can barely find records of their existence.  For example, they had a book of oral histories from Papua New Guinea that was exceptionally rare.  I could only find evidence of two copies of the book ever even existing, and the one they had was made especially for the Museum of Man.  Things like that are really hard to appraise, but the more scarce something is, the higher the value.  This is one of the priciest collection I’ve ever worked on!  And some people don’t value old library books.  Ha!

Cataloging a Boring Collection

Like everyone, some days are better for me than others.  As a tangent to that, some collections we acquire are better than others.  We recently acquired a fabulous collection of sporting books, primarily hunting and fishing.  This type of collection is a real boon.  Specialty non-fiction is our best-selling stock and the life-blood of an internet bookseller.  We dabble in textbooks, of course, where the quick profits can be had a few times a year, but super specific and esoteric knowledge collected into small print-runs by tiny specialty publishers are where we tend to make bank.

In general, these collections are really interesting to catalog.  I loved cataloging the Easton Estate collection.  Robert Easton was a Hollywood dialect coach and actor who specialized in accents.  He collected books in English written in dialect and he collected books about language and linguistics.  His collection was fascinating, especially since I’m an amateur linguist and lover of wordplay (my personal reading tendencies are for books about linguistics and I tend to listen to podcasts about linguistics while I work).  I quite enjoyed the challenge of cataloging the collection of Dr. Michel Philappart, who began collecting books as a child in WWII Belgium and who had quite a few extremely valuable and rare works in his collection, mainly in French.  For example, a true first edition of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and several very important medical texts were among his collection.  I remember the Kehoe collection of aphorisms and quotes fondly, too, and there have been several interesting collections from smaller estates that were interesting just for their novelty.

The current collection I’m working on, however, interests me not one bit.  I’ve tried, but paging through the books I’m more apt to grimace in disgust than to dig through the internet for more information about the topic.  Yes, it is the aforementioned collection of sporting books.  They range in topic from African big game hunting, to venison cookbooks, to training turkey hunting dogs, to making fishing lures, to bow-hunting, birding, grouse, bear, bucks… I’m not one to disparage anyone for their hobbies, since I have a few doozies of my own, but I just do not understand the appeal.  Going outside?  Without internet?  Where there are bugs and… nature?!  Not for me!  So, cataloging this collection has been a bit of a bore, and has also left me with a disinclination to take pictures of the books to fill up our Instagram account.  While these might be great sellers for us (we’ve been selling them almost as fast as we’ve been able to list them online), I’ll be happy to go back to digging through our backlog of antiquarian medical texts, or French philosophy, or architecture.  Or basically anything.  While all books are interesting to SOMEONE, I think I’ll pass on the hunting and fishing stories.

The value of an association copy.

As a seller of older books, I can’t help but come across remnants of the lives of the people who’ve owned the books before.  From ticket stubs, to photographs, to inscriptions, the ephemera of a life that has touched a book can also add value to a book.  One of the collections of books we acquired once belonged to a Hollywood publicist named Barrett Kiesling.  Kiesling had been the publicity director of MGM Studios and worked with many of the great names in the movie industry, most notably Cecil B. DeMille, who mentioned Kiesling in his autobiography.  An avid book collector and autograph hound, Kiesling used his contacts in the industry to amass a vast collection of signed books, many of which have the letters between the collector and the author tucked into them.  That evidence of a connection to another person is what people love about autographed copies.

Recently, I came across the biography of Jackie Gleason, a noted comedian.  An inscription in the book from the author was addressed to John.  The signature of the author made the book worth something but, in general, an inscription addressed to a specific person lowers the value of a signed copy.  Collectors usually want a flat-signed book with no inscription, or at most a generic inscription.  However, tucked into the back of the book was a letter from a Hollywood agent, addressed to their client, one John Candy, and dated shortly before Candy was to be in a documentary about one of his comedic inspirations, Gleason.  That implies a tangible connection between author, subject of the book, and owner of the book.  I held in my hands a book that had once been held and read by someone famous.  As a bookseller, my only option was to price up the copy, of course!

One of the coolest association copies I’ve ever encountered was a 5-volume set by P. & T. Corneille.  The set was unremarkable; 48mo, damaged leather, a not very important work… but the bookplates!  Each of the five books had the armorial bookplate of François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé, a royal supporter during the French Revolution and the only person mentioned by name in the the French national anthem.  How cool!  I imagine the marquis escaping France after failing to smuggle out the royal family with this set of books packed among his meager belongings, first to Prussia and then on to England.  But the marquis is only the start of the story, because volume 1 of the set also contained the bookplate of Countess Bernardine Murphy Donahue.  She was the adopted daughter of oil tycoon Daniel Murphy and his wife, Antoinette.  While on vacation to Europe to adopt a son, they were leaving an orphanage in Italy when she tugged at Antoinette’s dress. Believing it was a sign from God, the Murphys adopted her. Bernardine was a collector of rare and antiquarian books, as well as a generous patron of charities and the Roman Catholic Church.  Pope John XXIII made Bernardine a papal countess in 1960.  I’ve held in my hands a connection to both of those remarkable people.  You could, too, by the way… that set hasn’t sold yet.

Dusting: How to Care for Books on a Shelf

It’s a constant struggle.  It’s a battle in a war you’ll never truly win.  It’s a fight against your skin cells, windy weather, ventilation and laundry systems, and the normal particles that are in the air.

Dust is the scourge of booksellers, librarians, and collectors alike.  Few people enjoy dusting, but it is a chore that must be accomplished on a regular schedule or everything goes out of control.  Large bookstores like Barnes & Noble have all the opening employees dust on a schedule, usually for about 5 minutes right before opening on a rotation of a different section each day of the week.  Smaller bookstores fit it in on slow days when there are few customers.  For those smaller bookstores, dusting is usually at the bottom of the list of tasks and has the lowest priority, far below things like organizing categories, counting the till, or putting away go-backs.  Warehouses and internet sellers who have their books in storage are usually so focused on volume (quantity, not quality) that dusting never actually gets done at all.

It needs to be done, though.

When stored on shelves in a non-presentation fashion — that is, spines down and fore-edges pointed up so as to protect the textblock from gravity drop and tearing at the hinges — a hand-vacuum can get up most of the dust that settles on the fore-edges.  This also works for the top edges of a book if they are stored on a shelf for presentation, although you should be careful of vacuuming near the spine, especially if the book has a dust jacket.  Books should be lifted off the shelf in handfuls and slightly damp rag used to wipe the shelf down.  Don’t scoot books along the shelves, that’ll just scuff the spines.  In an open warehouse, dusting should be done in a rotation, a few bays every day.  Be careful of dust jackets when using the vacuum or the rag, because they are often the most delicate part of the book, especially if you haven’t put them in a protective Mylar sleeve.

Dust comes up from the edges of a book fairly easy, probably because of the thin surfaces that the edges of the pages present for sticking.  On the other hand, dust that has settled on a book jacket is hard to shake off… perhaps that’s why they’re called “dust jackets”?  Even dust on cloth and leather covers is hard to get off sometimes.  Often you can just shake a book gently, but sometimes a dry dusting rag is necessary.  There are also products on the market to help get ingrained soiling out of your cloth covers.

If you are an internet seller, try to keep your inventory stored on shelves that are not near openings to the outside.  Closed rooms without foot-traffic are best.  Must of the dust that settles on our books come from the skin particles that we all shed frequently.  Air filtration can work in smaller spaces to keep your books dust-free, but they won’t work in larger spaces like warehouses.  Even industrial air filters are not meant to work in open warehouses.

Good luck!

The Literary Olympian

There is a general sense in the minds of many people about the type of person that is an avid reader or book collector.  The stereotype of a quiet, socially awkward, glasses-wearing shut-in is perpetuated by movies, television shows, and even our beloved books.  In fact, just examine the connotations that the word “bookish” evokes.

I would absolutely describe myself as bookish.  I read a lot, I work with books, my closet is full of overflowing bookshelves instead of clothes, and I’m not exactly the paragon of physical fitness, to put it mildly.  Therefore, when I start talking excitedly about sports and athletes, it can be surprising to people who view me through the stereotypical lens of a bookish nerd.  After all, don’t book nerds all hate their natural school-yard enemies, the dreaded jock?  Don’t book nerds disdain nonintellectual pursuits like sweating and competing?  Why would someone who enjoys classic literature or science fiction fandom be interested in SPORTS, of all things?

Well, all I can say is that people are not one dimensional and do not fit into only one category.  Personally, I like to combine my hobbies.  The relevant example here is my love of hockey and my love of books, which translates into a growing collection of books about hockey.  And, to smoothly segue to the main point of this post, books about Olympic hockey.  The Olympics are coming to a close soon, and it has been a fun ride.  The US women’s team plays Canada tonight for the gold medal game, while the men’s team was sadly eliminated by Czechia.  Go Team USA!

Every Olympics, Winter and Summer, sees a new flurry of books written about it.  Biographies, tell-all scandals, histories of the games, behind-the-scenes reporting… a veritable smorgasbord of feasts for the sports book collector to satiate their appetite with.  But this website is devoted to the older fare, the finely aged wines of this particular niche genre, and boy do we have a lovely offering for people like myself who drool over Olympic books.

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles.  A book by Hugh Harlan called “History of the Olympic Games Ancient and Modern” was printed up for these, the Xth modern Olympic games.  It wasn’t anything special, really, mostly just a souvenir book to read in the stands while waiting for the races to start.  But one intrepid spectator sought out 15 athletes of the games and got signatures from them.  These athletes were competing in various sports like field hockey, shooting, and boxing, and from all sorts of countries, including India, Japan, France, and Mexico.  This is a rare collectible item for a book collector who is also a sports enthusiast and it is newly listed on the website under our Sports category.  May the best collector win!

All the French books!

2017 is ending soon, and for me, at least, it has been the year of researching and listing books in French on our website.  We bought a massive collection of medical and other collectible books from Dr. Michel Philippart.  His collection is an incredible mix of antiquarian medical and philosophy books, and mid-20th century novels in French.  I’ve really enjoyed listing it this past year, and I’ll get to continue for just a little bit into the upcoming year, too.  I’ve even started trying to learn a little French, partially so I can better deal with listing books like this!

Getting Started

Let me tell you… getting started selling stuff on your own website is a lot more complicated than the pitch-men make it out to be.

The concept of Easy Street Rare Books came from my recent attendance at CABS, the yearly Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar this last July.  Some of the other booksellers there ran their websites through Bibliopolis and had nothing but good things to say about them as a web developer and hosting company specialized in the book trade.  The functionality of our website is all them and I think they did a good job.

There are a lot of obstacles to overcome, though.  For example, we use an inventory management system called Monsoon to catalogue our books and we didn’t want to switch to the tools that Bibliopolis provides, since that would require re-indexing over half .  Monsoon is for general inventory, not just books, so there are is a lot of extraneous information in their files.  It took a bit to figure out how to configure our uploads to the website so they didn’t come out looking like a long stream of nonesense.

Another issue was working on a gateway between our bank and the website to be able to accept credit cards, which necessitated adding another company into the mix in Authorize.net to securely transfer the funds when people (hopefully!!!) start buying books.  I am not at all savvy in the worlds of either technology or banking and trying to figure out everything I had to do to make this happen about made my head spin.

Finally, promoting the website to actually get people in here buying stuff is going to be my hardest challenge, I think.  I’m getting the managers of our four store locations to promote us on their Facebook pages, but our brick-and-mortar stores are all discount and modern books, so I’m worried there won’t be enough crossover interest in the antiquarian market.  I’ve also made an Istagram page and a Twitter account… but no followers yet.  Also, we’ll see how this blog does!

Wish me luck!