Bright Young Booksellers: Tom Lecky
How did you get started in rare books?
As a teenager, literature opened up an immense world to me and I started to go regularly to used bookstores. I tended towards experimental writers on small presses, which meant that first editions were my only options. So, more time in bookstores. Later, in graduate school, I was lucky to have two very different mentors. The writer Gilbert Sorrentino introduced me to a world of authors and artists who have become my lifelong passions. Sorrentino influenced my entire philosophy of life, and since I wanted to know more about the literary and artistic world he'd shared with me, I spent even more time, money and energy collecting books related to that world. And then the Americanist Jay Fliegelman took me to San Francisco to see several antiquarian booksellers. This introduction to serious bookselling illuminated a path other than the academic one on which I'd put myself. I knew I wanted to work with books as a career, and was lucky enough to be invited to work for Doyle New York. This was a remarkable opportunity for a twenty-two year old. I participated in every aspect of the auction world, from packing to cataloguing, marketing, auctioneering, and running a department. A few years later I met Francis Wahlgren, and he and Felix de Marez Oyens offered me a job at Christie's. I have been very fortunate to meet, learn from, and work with such great people in the world of books.
When did you take over Riverrun and what do you specialize in?
I bought Riverrun in June 2016. Our core stock is strong in literature, science fiction, architecture, art, photography, and scholarly books. Given my career history, and my experience with a broad range of material beyond Riverrun's original inventory, I am adding books and collections in a greater range of antiquarian subjects. I also represent private clients in en bloc sales of their entire subject collections.
What do you love about the book trade?
It starts and ends with the books. I want to be around books all day and with a great group of like-minded colleagues and clients. There are few things as motivating as the daily discoveries made in a career as broad and rich as ours.
Describe a typical day for you:
I usually first fulfill orders and then move on to whatever projects are at hand. Cataloguing new material and work on appraisals tends to come first. My days and weeks are usually punctuated with regional visits to people's homes, travel further afield to see clients, and appointments at the shop. Consultancy projects for Christie's and advising clients round out my schedule.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you've handled?
I can't limit myself to one. Standouts are the bookseller/publisher Samuel Smith's copy of Newton's Principia that was sold last December at Christie's New York, setting a new auction record for a scientific book. I still dream about the condition of the Holford-Bok-Berland copy of Walton's Compleat Angler, and think of the rare opportunity to have handled Roger North's copy of Peter Martyr's The Decades of the Newe World from the Frank S. Streeter sale. Kerouac's On the Road typescript scroll also has to be on the list.
What do you personally collect?
My wife affectionately calls them "thin books." From the time we met in high school to today I have collected avant garde American poetry, mostly in William Carlos Williams's lineage through the Black Mountain College and Language schools, including Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Clark Coolidge, Charles Bernstein, and Lynn Hejinian. But the main figure is Paul Blackburn, a grossly underrated poet whose abilities and influence on other poets are so far out of balance with the attention he gets.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I have released four albums of experimental improvisatory music, and so I have a life outside of books that I share with musicians and composers. I honor the engineering gene in my family history by trying to keep an old motorcycle on the road, and spend as much time with my wife and sons as possible.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I see a vast and rewarding marketplace at present, one that continually adapts to the systemic changes of our digital evolution. One can research more easily, reach people more easily, interact more easily than ever before.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
I published my first printed catalogue in December. It contained a collection of Adirondack material (to reflect my origins) and expanded to a range of range of subjects: antiquarian to contemporary and including literature, medicine, art, religion, Americana, and popular culture. As John Dewey wrote "Only diversity makes change and progress." It certainly drives me, as can be seen in the variety of subjects found in the digital catalogues I distribute regularly via my email list and website.
[Image supplied by Tom Lecky]