Bright Young Booksellers: Alan Kitchen
How did you get started in rare books?
I received a BA in Fine Arts, a subject still very dear to me, but literature took a strong hold right after college. For several years I worked for a big-box bookstore, and sometime during that period I learned that people pay attention to the finer points of books, something I think which appealed to the burgeoning art "collector" in me, and began vaguely teaching myself the rudimentary aspects of collection building. Though only later a collector, I think it was the childhood visits to the amazing Hyde Brothers Bookshop in Fort Wayne, IN, that opened up the importance of used bookshops in my mind. Midway through the corporate phase, my now wife and I moved to Denver, which is of course an amazing book town and exposure to numerous good sellers and kinds of books really propelled me forward. Like any sensible book person in that city, I adopted the Hermitage Bookshop as a weekly check-in spot. After two years of diligent visits and shyly asking questions or putting forth my "wants," the kind and knowledgeable owner, Robert Topp, asked me over a cup of coffee, if I had any interest in furthering my book education by joining his shop. Stunned, I had to tell him that my wife and I were committed to a six-month trip abroad in Europe, to which he offered: "I can give you six weeks, then you can start for me." I spent five years at the shop, which came to an end after another lengthy trip and relocation to Indiana.
When did you open Black Forest Bookshop and what do you specialize in?
After six months of driving coast to coast, a relocation and addition to our family, I opened my online store Black Forest Bookshop in the summer of 2016. It can't be said I specialize as of yet, but my inventory is prominently literature, with philosophy, poetry, and some history.
What do you love about the book trade?
As many have stated before, the people are a big draw. Any time one gets to talk and share with others that have a like passion, it stimulates one to explore further and try harder. The eye-opening conversations with customers at the shop sometimes verged on the metaphysical, sometimes I felt as though it was a graduate course. Then there are certainly the items themselves, the hunting, finding, researching, and learning. Coupled with this then, are the long stretches of solitude that are also a strong pull for me; like many, I suspect, that love books.
Describe a typical day for you:
Well I am a stay-at-home father for the time being, so beyond those widely consuming duties, I regularly check email, respond to inquiries and process orders. My sidekick and I run to the post office, check for book sales, etc. Weekends are occasionally consumed with long scouting drives across the Midwest.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you've handled?
One of the favorites currently in inventory: The modest 1949 Alan Swallow edition of John Williams's poetry collection The Broken Landscape. Deservedly known for the renaissance of his novels (my favorite being Butcher's Crossing) this little item is inscribed by the author before the famous prose was ever published!
What do you personally collect?
I have been building a collection of literature in translation, with a focus on European and probably specifically German writers, though not strictly limited. I enjoy my collections of books by W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser. I am also fond of my very modest but personally important group of contemporary painter monographs.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love to travel, hike, camp and read. Hanging out with my wife and daughter is the best of times.
Thoughts on the present state and future of the rare book trade?
I think its future is strong. Why wouldn't it be? People have always loved important, beautiful, gratifying objects; we have entire complexes built to house them. That being said, I think it's vital that dealers reach out to a wider variety of customer and will need to extend what is considered of secondary-market importance. Many small and new presses are publishing great material that will need properly cataloged moving forward. Paperback originals will become a new major collectible in the next fifty years. I have daydreams of whole auction catalogs full of these some day. This part of preserving and selling may even come to be seen as a form of activism, environmentally, economically and culturally speaking. While at the shop the largest growing customer group were people in their 30s, spending real money, meanwhile, many of the earlier generation largely lamented...who knows. I think there is room for optimism.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
As of this writing, there are no specific plans.
We can be contacted at [email protected]Image courtesy of Alan Kitchen.