Meet the new collectors of old books
Late last month, at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, Rebecca Romney removed a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl, Kaddish, and Other Poems” from the window of her booth. She didn’t do it to recite from her pages but to show the writing in the margins.
Amy Winehouse had stumped the lyrics of an unrecorded song alongside Ginsberg’s lines. “You see his artistic process,” Ms. Romney said. “And it’s right next to someone else’s art that she was consuming while creating something new.” Ginsberg’s text is the centerpiece of Ms. Winehouse’s 220-book collection, which Ms. Romney’s company, Type Punch Matrix, near Washington, DC, is in talks to sell as a unit for $135,000. “It shows a life lived through the books,” she said.
Ms. Romney is an established saleswoman known to “Pawn Stars” fans as the show’s rare book expert. But at 37, she represents a large and growing cohort of young collectors who come to the trade from many walks of life; Just opposite, Luke Pascal, a 30-year-old former restaurateur, presided over a crate of letters from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Michael F. Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, said these days his students are younger and less masculine than a decade ago, with nearly a third of between them benefiting from full scholarships.
“The archival world is actually considered quite hip,” he said.
Of course, most first-time collectors can’t shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a first edition. But by frequenting estate sales and second-hand bookstores, scouring eBay for hidden gems, and learning to spot the value of all manner of items, enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s have amassed collections that reflect their own tastes and interests.
Their work has been honored with awards from organizations and vendors such as Honey & Wax in Brooklyn, which reward efforts to create “the most ingenious, thoughtful, or original collections”, as opposed to the most valuable, said Professor Suarez. As a result, they help shape the next generation of a rarefied hobby and trade.
Several young participants stood out among the crowd of business clothes and books at the fair – especially Laura Jaeger, a petite 22-year-old with a mop of pink hair. His mother, Jennifer Jaeger, owns Ankh Antiquarian Books in Chadstone, Australia, specializing in books on ancient Egypt; Laura is in the process of becoming a partner in the firm.
She plans to expand her collection to reflect her interests, she said, such as metaphysics and photography. “But I still really know my rare Greek, Roman, Egyptian books, really well,” she said. “I’ve been able to rate books for a few years now.”
Kendall Spencer, 30, also hopes to leave his mark on the world of antiquarian books. A Georgetown law graduate who fell in love with rare books while researching Frederick Douglass, he apprenticed at DeWolfe & Wood Rare Books while preparing to take the Massachusetts bar exam.
“If you walk around here, there’s no one behind a booth that looks like me,” said Mr Spencer, who is black.
The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, a trade group with more than 450 members, hopes to see this change. The group launched a diversity initiative in 2020 to “encourage and promote the participation of LGBTQ+, BIPOC and underrepresented groups in the world of book collecting and trade,” wrote Susan Benne, executive director of the organization, in an e-mail. The group has also introduced a paid internship program placing participants in member companies.
“I want to see more people like me take an interest,” Mr. Spencer said, “and I think that starts with someone inviting people in.”
First editions everywhere
When starting out, most collectors focus on second-hand and vintage books that matter for personal reasons, sourced from thrift stores, second-hand bookstores and other amateur enthusiasts.
Thomas Gebremedhin, 34, vice president and editor-in-chief of Doubleday, started buying paperbacks at thrift stores in his early 20s while enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop, in order to read authors out of color, such as Gayl Jones. . These days, he can afford much more expensive rare books, though he also picks up first-edition hardcovers for less than $10 from a “secret” bookstore in Brooklyn.
“You can find first editions anywhere,” said Gebremedhin, whose collection includes thousands of titles. “They should have a TLC show. You know this coupon issue? I think there should be an equivalent for book buyers.
Camille Brown, 30, started collecting books at age 23 and worked at the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. “I started posting on Instagram the things I was scanning, which then led to posting on my own personal collection,” she said, which includes books on woodworking and carpentry. (His father is an entrepreneur.) Soon people started asking him for sourcing advice.
“It showed me there was more interest in the market than I thought,” Ms Brown said. Today, she’s a hobby bookseller on the platform and curates vintage books for clothing boutiques, sourcing most of her material from libraries and estate sales.
Ms Romney began collecting rare books at age 23, when she was hired by Bauman Rare Books in Las Vegas – a job she assumed her bachelor’s degree in classical studies and linguistics would not qualify her for. But she discovered that “general bookishness” was the only real prerequisite; anyone fairly nerdy, curious and thrifty could get into it.
She said collecting can be “an exercise in autobiography” — a way of seeing facets of one’s own experience refracted through the mirror of another’s life. For example: Margaret Landis, 30, is an astrophysicist who collects texts related to the cometary discoveries of Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in the United States. And Caitlin Gooch, the founder of a nonprofit literacy organization in North Carolina, collects non-fiction works related to black riders.
Ms Gooch’s father and uncle had documented the family’s “cowboy history”, she said, before her uncle died and the collection was lost. “We don’t know where these photos and videos are,” she said, “so for me to find these books, even if they’re not directly about my history, means that I will be able to share information from them.
Judge a book by its cover
Beyond the connection they offer to the past, collectors feel drawn to titles and editions that look good. This is why, as Jess Kuronen said, the jacket of a book plays a considerable role in the price.
Ms Kuronen, 29, owns Left Bank Books in Manhattan, which caters to what she calls “entry-level” collectors. In his store, a first edition of “On the Road” without the dust jacket is priced at $500. A “quasi-thin” first edition with the jacket recently selling for nearly $7,000.
At the Rare Book School, Professor Suarez said, students “learn to read graphic codes, illustrations and social codes” to understand “the life of this book over time in various communities”.
“There are definitely people who strictly want to buy used books rather than newer ones,” said Addison Richley, 28, owner of Des Pair Books in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Once she’s finished a book she likes, she scours the internet for “a prettier copy or a more interesting edit.” Recently, a customer refused to purchase a new copy of a vintage book he saw on the store’s Instagram.
“They explained to me that a used book is more special because it has character,” Ms. Richley said.
Brynn Whitfield, a 36-year-old technology publicist, started collecting old chess books five years ago. “I’m getting more and more compliments for having these items in my house,” she said. “People think it’s cooler than typical coffee table books.”
Although second-hand book sales are thriving online, most sellers believe there’s a serendipity that only in-person browsing can provide.
“So many things these days are trying to sell you what the machine thinks you already want,” said Josiah Wolfson, the 34-year-old owner of Aeon Bookstore, an underground boutique in Lower Manhattan. “I don’t want to presuppose what everyone is looking for, even if they collect a specific thing.”
Sometimes the book that jumps out is not at all what a collector would have expected to acquire. But, as Mr. Gebremedhin said, the “emotional logic” of a vintage cover eventually speaks to the collector.
“I just got a first edition of ‘Naked and the Dead’,” he said. He is not a fan of Norman Mailer, its author. But: “That’s a nice cover.”
Make room on the shelf
The market for used and rare books is a circular system of materials and ideas, and many young collectors, including Mr. Wolfson, see their shelves as “fluid.” He frequently selects his personal collection of titles with spiritual influences for Aeon stock, a process he likens to divination. If a book no longer matters to him, he said, “someone else should really enjoy it.”
Mr. Gebremedhin plans to donate his collection to the Columbus Public Library in Ohio, where he grew up. He donated 500 pounds before moving to a new apartment in Brooklyn. “A lot of the books that come into my house end up finding someone else,” he said. “That’s kind of the beauty of reading them and sharing them.”
Ms Brown, who sells books via Instagram, said “accessibility” is a guiding impulse in her work. The internet, she says, “opens the door for these objects to live far more lives than they otherwise would have lived.”
Back at the fair, Jesse Paris Smith, 34, and his mother, singer-songwriter Patti Smith, were looking at a book written by Charlotte Brontë when she was 13. For both of them, looking at the texts and the covers has been a source of bonding. (Patti started collecting books around age 9, when she bought “A Child’s Garden of Verses” at a church bazaar for 50 cents; today it’s worth $5,000.)
“Jesse made books and I sold them,” Patti said. “I took inventory, I wrapped them, wrapped them in gifts, I charged them.”
The Smiths also regularly donate books. “It’s painful, but we try to bring the ones we don’t read back into the world,” Jesse said.
“But not our special books!” Patti said.