Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Edwin Bloemsaat

Edwin Bloemsaat

I’m always looking for a beau mariage. It’s a very French concept when applied to books, and happens when a binding goes harmoniously together with excellent typography and illustration. A book has to please me from a technical and aesthetic point of view. It’s essential to have an eye for detail for this approach to bookselling, and to have seen enough books to recognise when one copy is good and another isn’t good enough. If you aim to sell fine books, the ability to distinguish between copies is more important than being a good salesman.

My passion for books began when I was in my final year at school in Groningen, near the birthplace of the great Dutch humanist scholar Rodolphus Agricola. In the Classics department, there was a library where I had my first encounter with antiquarian books. I was very attracted to them, and decided to make a catalogue. During the breaks, I spent my time handling books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries while everyone else kicked a football around.

By the time I went to the University of Groningen to study Classics and Mediaevistics, I was spending all my spare time in antiquarian bookshops – and more money than I could afford. As I was living at home, I had to explain why a book I had bought was worth hundreds of guilders. When I explained what was special about it, my mother accepted that I knew what I was doing. I used to frequent a small book auction house that nowadays doesn’t exist any more, run by a man who had a background in cattle markets. He was completely unbookish, and took me on to do some cataloguing. I spent just over a decade during the 1990s as his book expert. Working for an auctioneer is a useful experience; you never know what will land on your desk – it could be science or literature, modern or old – and in general you tend to see better quality books.

It was also in Groningen in the University library that I met my future wife, Liesbeth Voerknecht. Liesbeth has her own profession as a violin teacher, but she has a great feeling for books, so we started to collect and view auctions together. To this day I would never buy a book if Liesbeth didn’t like it. These days she combines violin teaching and working with me, preparing for the fairs where we exhibit.

When I finished my university studies, I found a job in the Royal Library at The Hague, cataloguing Dutch imprints to 1800 for the STCN (Short Title Catalogue Netherlands). It was a four-year project, during which I dreamt of becoming a curator. Unfortunately it coincided with a time when the Royal Library - and other libraries - began to concentrate resources on digitisation. When curators retired, they were usually not replaced, and the saving on salaries was spent on IT projects. If the trend continues, Holland will soon be left with a wealth of historical collections and no one who knows about them. What would the Royal Library have been without its curators, who have devoted their time and expertise to studying the collections and writing about them? It’s not digitisation that is the greatest threat to the physical book, it’s the loss of curatorial expertise.

My contract at the Royal Library came to an end in the summer of 2009. It happened to be the year of the twentieth anniversary of the Nederlands Genootschap van Bibliofielen, and I was fortunate to spend a year preparing Uit de Schaduw, a celebratory volume for the Dutch bibliophiles. The idea for the society was conceived during a reception for Nico Israel on his 70th birthday in 1989. Uit de Schaduw was published in 2011 by the renowned Jan de Jong of De Buitenkant, who specialises in the history of typography and books about books. 

Jan introduced me to Antiquariaat Brinkman in Amsterdam. After five years there, I had to decide if I wanted to stay on or start my own business. The prospect of spending the rest of my working life selling books like the Loeb Classical Library wasn’t for me. I wanted to deal in old and beautiful books, and devote my time and energy to meaningful writing and research. We were on holiday in Italy when I made the decision to quit Antiquariaat Brinkman. I could not have done it without Liesbeth’s support. She was the one earning a regular income in the early days when I was putting together and cataloguing my opening stock.

Florisatus Fine Books, Manuscripts & Musicalia was founded in January 2016 in The Hague. The name of the company is a Latinization of my surname, which means ‘flower seed’ in Dutch. This type of word-play was very popular in the humanist tradition. The Dutch early music performer Ton Koopman did something similar with ‘Antoine Marchand’ as the name of his record label. The inclusion of Musicalia in the description of my company reflects the fact that I not only sell old music prints but I also make violin bows. When Liesbeth needed a new bow, we visited some bow makers and I was fascinated by the mystery that those small pieces of wood, which seem at first view all the same and are essential for making the violin sound, are so different in quality and price range.

My grandfather was a carpenter and I spent a lot of my childhood in his workshop. I knew that I could work with wood, but I had yet to find out if I could make something fine. While I was working for Brinkman, I did an apprenticeship with the bowmaker Andreas Grütter in Amsterdam and, from the first moment, I realised that I had an aptitude for it. Making a bow is a form of meditation; you have to be in harmony with the piece of wood and to feel its tension and elasticity. The best moment comes when I give it to a violinist and my bow starts to make music. I’ve tried my hand at bookbinding, but it’s a very different skill. I don’t have the patience for it although I’m passionate about the subject. At one time I taught a course on the history of bookbinding at the Plantin Instituut voor Typografie in Antwerp. My predecessor was Jan Storm van Leeuwen, a former curator of the binding collection in the Royal Library at The Hague.

In January 2017 we did our first book fair as Florisatus Fine Books, exhibiting at Antiquaria Ludwigsburg. It’s held at the same time as the antiquarian book fair in Stuttgart, and is only a ten-minute train ride away. I’m most grateful to my German colleague, Daniela Kromp for introducing us to the fair. It takes place in a beautiful nineteenth-century theatre, and there’s always a wide range of material at all prices. Germany is the place to find not only many young booksellers but also young collectors. In Ludwigsburg entrance to the fair is free if you are below a certain age.  I’ve been impressed by the book fairs in Frankfurt and Leipzig where you often see school children. Although they are usually looking for Harry Potter or Manga, they are often fascinated by unfamiliar objects. For example, a book bound in velvet or an embroidered binding might catch their attention. They want to touch it, and ask how it was made, or they’re simply excited to hold a few hundred years of history in their hands.

At the Paris book fair recently, a seven-year-old boy came with his mother, who explained that he wanted to start collecting because his grandfather was a book collector. They bought a miniature edition of La Fontaine’s fables, and the boy is now our youngest customer. At his mother’s request, we send him invitations to fairs wherever we’re exhibiting in Europe. Some of my colleagues don’t like children entering their stands. They have a ‘don’t touch’ mentality, which I believe leads to nothing. Of course young people rarely buy something, but perhaps they will do so later in their lives. We need to put old books into their hands now or they may never discover them.

The seventeenth century was the golden age of Dutch printing. A high standard was maintained until the end of the eighteenth century when everything began to go downhill. There was a brief revival during the Art Nouveau period, but making money had become the main concern in Dutch book production, and succeeded in killing offbeautiful books in Holland.There is of course a great tradition of fine typographers in this country, from Jan van Krimpen in the 1930s to the present day, but such people are mainly focused on letter design and not on the book as a whole.

The collecting of high-quality books was never very flourishing in Holland, and seems to be now completely out of fashion. Few young people go to fairs, nor are there many exhibitions about rare books. As regards the antiquarian trade, the number of serious booksellers is dwindling, as many are reaching retirement age.  In fact seven out of 63 members of the NVvA, the Dutch national association of antiquarian booksellers, are retired. If the current lack of interest continues in Holland, the NVvA could be down to twenty-five members in ten years’ time.  We can’t continue to do our own thing without much thought for the future, and I believe that institutional libraries share the responsibility to promote the book as a physical object.

I think the time has come to produce printed catalogues again, and to write readable descriptions, explaining what is important about each item. Everyone is in a hurry these days, and so the choice of caption above the description is very important. It’s this ‘sound bite’ that will decide whether they go on reading or not. It’s becoming more difficult to sell books that have any defects. Thirty years ago, the price would reflect that the copy had a missing plate or a damaged binding. It would still be saleable, but today nothing short of perfect will do. In the case of Private Press books, they have become harder to sell unless your copy is one of the ten printed on vellum, or is in some way special.

In my experience almost every subject is going down in price, except for the really high spots, which have become so expensive that they are beyond the reach of most dealers – so much so that I’m finding it difficult to buy books at the moment. Everyone is curious to know who the end customers are for those high spots. Are they collectors who have decided to attend auctions for themselves, breaking the traditional buying pattern? During the pandemic it seems that some people with money to spend and nothing to do were bidding online, pushing the prices up – in some cases beyond what you might expect to pay for the book in the catalogue of an expensive dealer.

I don’t put my catalogues online, or send out lists before exhibiting at fairs. I like to hold back plenty of interesting items to display on my stand, as I believe that people who make the effort to visit deserve first sight of them. Virtual fairs – in a reasonable amount - work well during a pandemic, but they won’t replace in-person events. In order to acquire a love of books, you need to have them in your hands, to touch them and talk about them. Exhibiting at a book fair is a wonderful way to sell books with passion.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Spring 2022

 

Edwin Bloemsaat

 

A Poland & Steery Co-production