Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Kate Mitas, of Kate Mitas, Bookseller in San Francisco:
How did you get started in rare books?
Like a lot of people, I stumbled into the book trade, although unlike some, I wasn't initially all that keen on rare books. I got my start in 2006 at Cellar Stories Bookstore, a used and rare shop in Providence, Rhode Island, when the owner joked that I'd checked the shelves for a title so quickly I ought to work there. I decided he was right and told him so, and he must've seen that I was serious because I started the next week, eventually becoming the manager and staying on for the better part of seven years.
It took a while for me to appreciate rare books, though -- in the beginning, I considered books valuable for their content alone, and thought only rich people bought rare books. Over time, as I helped customers with both rare and used books and saw how delighted they were with their purchases, regardless, I began to understand the value of the book as object, too, and the satisfaction of selling rare books. That became especially true when, after another year-and-a-half stint at Blue Jacket Books, in Xenia, Ohio, a used and rare shop, I landed a job at Tavistock Books, the first antiquarian shop I worked at, in Alameda, CA. There, with the aid of a weeklong immersion in the field at CABS, I was introduced to the more scholarly uses of bibliography and the breathtaking expertise that can be wielded by rare book dealers, collectors and special collections librarians. I also got my first taste of working with archival and vernacular material, which I immediately found I had a knack for, and enjoy immensely.
Having now worked my way across the country, and worked for something like 12 different dealers, in one capacity or another, I can safely say that I love the rare book trade -- and that my education is still only just beginning.
When did you open Kate Mitas, Bookseller and what do you specialize in?
I took out my resale license on my birthday, in June 2017. I'm still largely an opportunist more than a specialist -- if I know something will sell, I'll buy it -- but I focus on archival and vernacular material and ephemera that reveals something about social and/or cultural history, particularly women's history. Also, anything just plain weird that tickles my fancy for one reason or another.
What do you love about the book trade?
I love that I learn something new every day, whether it's the convoluted printing history of Margaret Sanger's Family Limitation, the cultural history of roller skating, or the backstory of a long-dead diarist whose journals I'm cataloguing, pieced together from census records and newspaper accounts. Perhaps even more than that, though, I love that the book trade is both a community and a profession, one that's chock-full of extremely knowledgeable, inspiring people who care deeply about what they do and are often happy to help out us "young" up-and-comers. I hope to some day be able to pass on even a fraction of the help that's been given to me.
Describe a typical day for you:
There are no typical days. In part, that's because I do a lot of gig work for other booksellers to support myself while I build the business -- which has been a phenomenal learning experience, but has meant that on any given day I might be cataloguing a lesbian BDSM archive in the Mission, working on Hogarth Press material in the Financial District, sorting a Black Student Movement archive in Berkeley, or doing numerous other jobs, in addition to working on my own material. I'm gradually weaning myself away from working for other dealers, however, and focusing on actually selling some of the things I've been pouring my money into.
So, on a good day, I'm up and working in my pajamas by 7:30, answering email and generally trying not to wake up my roommates. Then I'll process any orders and, when the coast is clear, make a ruckus to my heart's content while I package them up. Once that's done, I sit down to catalogue and research for a while, take photos, wrangle with my website, and maybe post a photo to social media. Eventually I'll realize I'm still in my pajamas and get dressed, then walk over to the post office and, some days, head across the Bay to the Mission, where my "office" is. At this point, that's really just a few shelves and a borrowed desk in the back corner of Meyer Boswell Books, which Joe Luttrell has been kind enough to set aside for me, but as time goes on I plan to rent out more of the shop and spend more of the week working there. It's a beautiful thirdfloor space right across the hall from Bolerium Books, overlooking the sidewalk vendors and occasional brawls on Mission Street.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you've handled?
When it comes to favorites, I'm an inconstant lover: blissfully entranced by one item until the next fascinating or instructional or gloriously strange one comes along and thrills me. Currently, my heart has been captured by the 1940s working papers of a local woman inventor who came up some absolutely batshit contraptions, including a blimp-like creation with "lighter than air" wings, propellers and bulletproof glass that she named the Golden California. There are all of these detailed, improbable drawings in the collection, most of them even notarized as if for patent purposes, but she doesn't seem to have had the math and science skills to realize her ideas (or un-realize them, as the case may be), and mental illness may have been a factor. It's a tough collection, because it's also quite fragmented and came to me as a box of rolled up scrolls of paper, but there's a story behind it that's both tragic and, in the creativity evident in her work and her desire to solve life's problems, wonderful. I haven't figured out how to tell it yet, but I'm utterly grateful to have encountered it.
What do you personally collect?
I'd say nothing, but that wouldn't be fair to the stacks of bookseller catalogues I've hoovered up over the past few years and placed at strategic tripping spots around my room, or the small bucket of writing instruments in my desk that will last through the apocalypse. Nevertheless, I've been very good about not adding things I should sell to my own shelves -- even if I do sometimes hang onto a few particular items for longer than I ought to. I always tell myself I'll put ridiculously high prices on them and bring them to fairs so I can at least pretend I'm not trying to keep them, but then I cave and price them reasonably and have to console myself with old photos when they inevitably sell.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I haven't quite gotten the hang of the whole work-life balance thing since I started the business, so "outside of work" is kind of a foreign concept. That's not good, I know! My goal for this year is to get back into hiking, biking, and going to the many literary events around the Bay Area. And catching up on some of the enormous backlog of reading I have, it goes without saying.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I'm cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, there are a lot of brilliant young booksellers making a place for themselves in the trade, in ways that I think appeal to a different, more diverse generation of collectors, and I think that's fantastic. I'm also encouraged by the efforts of more established dealers to adjust their methods as the market moves away from traditional books, while still hanging onto their book-loving clients and encouraging new collectors in that area -- a line that I'm sure isn't always easy to walk. On the other hand, booksellers aren't exactly known for adapting quickly, and I think climate change will cause tectonic shifts in the way we do business, affecting everything from institutional budgets to bookseller insurance costs and collectors' focuses. I hope that the trade as a whole will meet this new challenge with grace, foresight and innovation, and will do so without becoming prohibitively expensive for the next generation of booksellers.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
I'll be exhibiting at Rare Books LAX and the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair, in October 2019. With any luck, I'll get a few lists out between now and then!
[Image provided by Kate Mitas]