Tell the average American you’re an antiquarian bookseller and they go completely blank. Most of them confuse you with a librarian, or the guy down the block selling used books out of a box. Their first question is ‘You can make a living doing that?’ And the second is ‘What is the most rare book you’ve ever sold?’ This translates as ‘What is the most expensive book you’ve ever sold?’ As every Englishman will tell you with glee, Americans are only interested in the price. In my bachelor days, I used to tell women I was an antiquarian bookseller – and watch the light going out in their eyes. From their point of view, there’s absolutely nothing to recommend it – who needs a librarian without a monthly pay cheque?
Bookselling is not really in my blood. My father was a lawyer, but I am distantly related to a couple of dealers, including Leona Rostenberg. My mother hashed out the details at a bookfair one year. I had been going round telling everyone I was related to Leona, who got to hear of it and thought it was very unlikely, whereupon my mother stood up and let her have it. I’m also related by marriage to Simon Sainsbury, who at one time owned part of Quaritch. I still remember the look of horror on Lord Parmoor’s face when I told him of my faint connection with his firm.
I began my working life as a stock broker in San Francisco during the 1960s. But the market had been going down for several years, and by 1971 I was ready to cast about for something else to do for a living. I was in a change-of-life situation and a friend told me to go through the telephone book from A to Zee till something caught my eye. I got as far as B for ‘Bookdealers – Used and Rare’, and that was the job for me! I had been collecting modern art books and I knew the names of a few dealers – but that’s about all I knew.
Anyway, I arranged with my employer to get fired – so that I would at least have some unemployment insurance. He was a friendly chap and agreed to fire me for violating the firm’s dress code. For the next six months, I managed an art gallery in San Francisco, till the FBI turned up. Someone had bombed the offices of my former employer, and I was a prime suspect as the most recently discharged employee. My new boss was rather unnerved by the whole story and I decided to leave and set up on my own.
It was difficult getting started, although I already knew something about dealing. When I was in high school, I had my own letterhead stationery and dealt in rare coins. I must have been about fourteen years old, but I’m sure my customers thought I was in my forties. But there’s a special pathology about book collecting and I wouldn’t have wanted to go on dealing in coins.
Although I knew most about modern art books, I decided to specialise in English colour plate books of the Regency period, which seemed the most profitable end of the business in the early 1970s – an important consideration as I was living on the dole for my first year. I also had a supply of fancy cufflinks from my stock broking days, which went down in number as the months went by.
At one point I offered my body and soul to David Magee, the British bookseller who had settled in San Francisco in the ’twenties, and specialised in Victorian literature. I wanted to work for nothing in return for an apprenticeship, but he said he didn’t take on anyone he couldn’t afford to pay, and he couldn’t afford to take on anyone. So I carried on doing the rounds in San Francisco and slowly began to build up a very small stock of which I was inordinately proud.
In the first hour of my first buying trip to New York, I walked into Carnegie Books and bought a mint copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. A few hours later, I sold it to Ursus, doubled my money and thought to myself, ‘God. What an easy business!’ It was years before I did as good a deal again....
Looking back, I really knew next to nothing. But my worst mistake turned out to be a profitable one. An auction catalogue came from London and I decided to bid on an eighteenth century flower book, described as ‘one of three known large paper copies, folio’. At that time I didn’t know that folio refers to the way in which the sheets are folded. I thought it just meant big. So I put in a bid and got it for $5,000. A few weeks later the tiniest package arrived, and out popped this mega-buck, nothing-looking, nine by six inch book. I felt like going to the Golden Gate and jumping off, clutching the book to my breast.
Instead I went to Warren Howell who was kind enough to give me the name of the foremost American collector of flower books. (I since discovered that she was also his most difficult customer.) Anyway, I called her up, she ordered it and I got a cheque by return for $6,500, whereupon I thanked Mr Howell who was visibly shocked as she had never paid him in less than a year.
I still remember the first time I went to Sotheby’s in London. All the old- time booksellers were sitting round the green table, so I sat down and tried to pretend I was one of the boys. Actually I was scared to death of the other dealers – and the auctioneer. But I had my first lucky break in London with the firm of W. T. Spencer, which disappeared years ago. They had a wonderful stock and I always bought enough to pay for my entire trip. There was a lovely woman in charge – I think her name was Miss Clark. On one occasion, I told her I’d just bought the second and third volumes of a set of Frankenstein. She immediately produced the first volume from a back room. When I asked the price, I knew I was entirely at her mercy. But she said, ‘How about £5?’
Nowadays I come to London once or twice a year and always enjoy it. As I’m an outsider, there’s still the novelty factor and people are very friendly. I know it would be different if I were a dealer round the block who’d just outbid them in some country auction for books they’d driven six hours to buy. Around me in California, the dealers basically can’t stand one another. Only a few of my local colleagues ever visit me, and whenever we have ABAA meetings, they’re always fairly acrimonious.
In the old days, joining the ABAA was a joke. You just sent in your money and that was about it. Then they got a lot of flak from European and English booksellers and decided to tighten things up. But I can honestly say, when I first came over to London as a full ABAA member, I didn’t know what the word ‘collate’ meant. Sure I checked my books to see if all the plates were there, but I barely knew the terminology of the trade.
In the last seven or eight years, things have gone from overly lenient to silly strict. To join the ABAA today, you need a main sponsor and three sub-sponsors, all of whom have to testify that they’ve done business with you for a period of five years. You also have to fill out a 500-word paragraph ‘Why do I want to be a rare book dealer?’ – which forces most people to lie something along the lines ‘Oh for the charm and wonderfulness of dealing with culture’. You also need to provide a banker’s letter and to confirm that you make the majority of your income from buying and selling books, prints or maps. The one thing you don’t have to show is any evidence of scholarship or knowledge.
This is not a very literary age in the United States. The rare book libraries are hardly buying anymore. I issued a catalogue last year, sent it to 1,200 American libraries and got four orders, only one of which was in four figures. The real miracle is that they are not de-accessioning on a large scale. And there’s a strong case for it. Most of the schools for which the librarians work are laying off teachers, and there’s no money for new text books. Every state in the Union now has severe money problems – health care, unemployment, you name it – and the last thing they want is to give money to buy rare books. I consider librarians, with the exception of a few great ones, to be the absolute enemies of book dealers. Most of them look upon books as items of prestige to enhance their university and their own personal pride. It’s not their money they’re spending so they prefer to deal with booksellers who make them feel good – take them out to the right restaurants and so on. If you happen to be a really obnoxious dealer – but with great books at good prices, most librarians wouldn’t want to deal with you. But things are changing, and most American libraries will never be a major collecting force again. There are still some very important private collectors around, but they tend to be in their fifties. When they get to their early seventies, they stop buying and start bragging. You can spot them at bookfairs as they walk round boring the dealers to tears by looking at their prices and saying ‘Look how valuable my library has become’. The trick is to sit there and pat them on the back till they get to their eighties. There’s no one more popular than an elderly collector – everyone tries to chat him up or his wife, hoping they get the call when he finally falls over.
Somehow we’ve got to attract a new generation of collectors, and publicity is obviously the key. The traditional means of mass communication is of course television, but who can afford it? So you have to think of ways of making news. How about getting a book dealer to immolate himself outside the British Library on the eve of a bookfair? I’m sure I could select a candidate.
The point of a bookfair is not only to make money for the book dealer. It also has the vital function of educating people in rare books and possibly turning beginners into serious collectors. Someone just starting is much more valuable to the trade than an advanced collector who has everything except the two books printed in two copies only. But how do you get the newcomer through the door? Apart from publicity, the environment itself is very important. It should be pleasant but not intimidating. In this respect, the PBFA has got it right by keeping things low-key and unpretentious, with a mix of cheaper and more expensive books.
On the other hand, the ABA seems to make a point of doing the opposite. I didn’t exhibit at the Park Lane Hotel this time as I’ve been losing money there for the last three years. The buying has been little and the selling worse. I’ve also had bad booth locations. There’s no doubt the Park Lane has its black holes and I’m pleased to hear the fair’s moving. For example, I’ve sat on the stage and watched one out of two people walk by and not climb those three extra steps.
It’s obviously better to have a booth at the front of a fair, for the simple reason that people walk in with X amount of money. They start at the first booth and work their way round. By the time they hit the fifteenth booth, the chances are they’ve spent their money. When they hit the stage, they’re too tired even to look at the books. The proof of this is the New York fair where the booths near the entrance cost twice as much as those at the far end. It wasn’t always like this but things got changed when there was a lot of screaming a few years ago. Nowadays locations in most American fairs are organised by lottery, which is something I would like to see the ABA do.
Really to make money in this business, I should have dealt in medical books. In America, we have no royalty or aristocracy, but we do have tens of thousands of physicians on an average salary of $400,000 a year. There’s a real depth to the medical business, and the collectors never say ‘I’d love your book, but I don’t have the money’. But I always pride myself on the fact that I only deal in books that turn me on. I once had a syphilis atlas, and that was enough to make me happy that I didn’t deal in medical books.
Japan has always turned me on, and so I’ve been lucky to specialise in a country which became rich and grasping as far as rare books are concerned. I could just as easily have chosen to specialise in books on the Philippines, a country I have visited six times – but I would have had maybe one customer. Books on the Orient make up a third of my stock of about 1,000 volumes at home in San Rafael, twenty minutes from downtown San Francisco. But I still have quite a lot of classic colour-plate books, general travel, natural history and some science and sport. Actually sport is the new hot subject in the States, particularly books on the great American game of baseball. But, for some strange reason, I’ve never met a collector of books on American football.
Whatever you do, this business takes a tremendous amount of energy, and a certain amount of money – or you better get lucky in a hurry. I’ve also noticed that all the great booksellers have an excellent memory. Someone like Donald Heald can remember the price, condition and binding of every book he has ever seen. I’d rank Donald in my quintet of the smartest booksellers in the English-speaking world, along with Sam Fogg, Max Reed, Bernard Shapero and Lou Weinstein. They all have something in common – they can add a column of figures and they know what sells and whom to sell it to. You can find people who know books better, and people who know business better, but you won’t find many who know the book business better. I’ve deliberately excluded firms like Maggs and Quaritch from my quintet. They have customer lists going back to the Duke of Wellington, so someone’s always dying with libraries for sale.
I still have the standard bookseller’s fantasy of that telephone call, ‘Mr Hollander, my husband just died. He’s been collecting horrible old illuminated manuscripts. Can you come and take them away?’ Actually I’ve never had any really major stroke of good fortune in this business. But I’ve got pretty much where I want to be. I got married recently, and enjoy what you might call a Californian life- style – the pool and the barbecue and running on the beach – and I won’t be going through the telephone book again except to look up H for ‘Homes, retirement’.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in July 1993
As of January 1, 2017, we have retired from active bookselling. We still have a small stock of books to sell via auction houses and I’m still looking to buy rare and unusual colour plate books from 1780 to 1850 to add to my collection.
Afterword added in July 2017