Bright Young Things: Jason Rovito
How did you get started in rare books?
Nausea. I was working on my dissertation and not feeling particularly pleasant about academic life. And medieval Bologna charmed me. Especially the scenery of the early university--with professors and students conducting their business in rented brothel rooms, while the Papacy plotted to build some spectacular academic palace, at the centre of which was an anatomy theatre, with its lecturer's chair supported by two flayed statues. Within all this, I started paying attention to the booksellers, and to the ways in which they supplied the material that allowed this academic drama to play out. (Rather than sell full manuscripts, they tended to rent out individual quires; an early form of the packet-switching model that built the Internet). Blah blah. When Atticus Books announced that it was retiring its bricks-and-mortar, and there were bookcases and shop-stock to be had, I applied for academic leave and opened up an upper-floor scholarly shop and seminar space. As a business, the project was totally unsustainable (to be kind). But it got me handling books to pay rent. And I was able to stay afloat long enough to find my way to CABS (thanks to a scholarship from Foreseeing Solutions). CABS was a total revelation and I started to appreciate that a rare book is much more than just an expensive (non-rare) book. Since then, I've been trying to figure out my way into the trade.
When did you open Paper Books and what do you specialize in?
The "Paper Books" shtick started last Spring, while being evicted (more or less) from my first open shop. To raise money for the move, I needed to launch a crowd-funding campaign, but I didn't want to play the charity card. Since I was in the process of developing a new website, I figured I'd link the two projects together by hijacking the language of subscription: i.e. "subscribe to paper books, to add depth to your screen." I still think that this hybrid style of retail can work (inbox as foyer). But I realized after CABS that my skill-set isn't suited for retail, and that my time would be better spent working on quotes, catalogs, and fairs. It's been almost a year of fumbling around in transition. But I think I'm almost ready to confess as "Jason Rovito, Bookseller." It'll be my third name and hopefully the hardest one to shake off.
As for specialization--it's something I'm still rather anxious about. I've known for a while that I'm interested in the nineteenth-century, especially as something that almost happened. But every time I try to further narrow the focus, something from the periphery catches my attention (likely because the cost-of-entry at the periphery is much lower). My latest intuition is that I should just embrace this anxiety as a bibliographic tool, and become known as "that guy who's really anxious about the nineteenth-century." For starters, that's got me trying to catalog nineteenth-century myth, with keywords like [Commercials], [Hygiene], [Weekend], [White Collar], and [Wireless].
What do you love about the book trade?
Its ethics. It doesn't always happen (by a long stretch), but it's possible that a single deal in the book trade can bring value to everyone involved: the creators, the created, the sellers, the buyers, and the dealers. And I don't mean that in a high-horse kind of way; ethics can be really pleasurable. The friendships that emerge at CABS are great examples of what's possible from a trade that (at its best) doesn't involve zero sum games; where a part of the profits can be shared, especially through meals, drinks, and conversations. In 2013, I'm not sure that many other jobs can offer the same health benefits.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you've handled?
Deutsche Menschen by Detlef Holz (one of the pseudonyms of Walter Benjamin). It was my first year in the trade and I was fortunate to be brought-in on an impressive estate; the reconstituted library of a Jewish exile from Nazi Europe. As the junior dealer, I was supposed to box-up and haul-off the hundred-plus boxes of common books. But I was also invited to pull aside a handful of rare books before other dealers arrived. I'd selected eight books that I could afford to make offers on, including this pseudonymous work of Benjamin's, which was published in Switzerland and specifically designed to be smuggled into Germany (which it was, successfully, until the censors got wise to the second printing). As I was packing haul-off boxes into the rental van, an employee for an institutional library arrived in the driveway, said hello, and asked whether I was the grandson. I said no, I'm a local bookseller. He quickly darted into the house. When I got back inside, my pile of books had been reduced from eight to two; one of the two being the Holz (smuggled once again).
What do you personally collect?
Booksellers' catalogs, IOUs, road trips. Stories, mostly injury-related; really tall fish.
On your website, you mention that collecting is a "social activity." Could you elaborate on this idea?
I guess the basic idea is that, unless you collect dust, you never just collect as a solitary individual. But that's probably an all-too-obvious point for collectors themselves, since they primarily interact with society whilst collecting. And so, by definition, the activities that build their collections are necessarily social. But probably even more social are the abstract decisions that inform what (or whether or how) to collect in the first place. An iTunes library is still a library, and an e-reader is nothing more than a digital collection of texts; it's just that the collecting is being filtered through the social parameters of the screen, rather than through paper-based media.
Which is maybe why the bookseller--rather than the collector or the librarian--is often the only actor within this system without a salary. I.e. when money starts to dry up in the trade, it's the bookseller who's motivated (by survival) to stress the social nature of collection and the social consequences of any changes to how we collect as a society. Paper-based collections are built through curiosity, conviviality, and travel (amongst other social things). And the bookseller is the first to suffer when these values can no longer pay rent. Blah blah (chirps this canary).
All that aside: I've never been much of a reader. As a kid, I used to withdraw bags of dinosaur books from the library, shut them up in my closet, and return them three months overdue. So this "collection" angle helps me sleep at night.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I think it's fair to say that this is a period of adaptation. But I'm sure the trade will remain familiar enough. Private collectors will continue to be fascinated by their particular fascinations, even if they work with auction houses and search engines in a more direct fashion than before. And libraries will continue to collect what they don't have, as long as they continue to be granted budgets with which to do so. (And maybe, in that sense, the politics of austerity will have more of an impact on the book trade than digital technologies.) Urban landlording, through rent inflation, seems to have shrunk the cashflow-margins that most bookshops relied upon; so I'm skeptical that any one city can support more than a handful of open shops at a time. And that makes the pop-up model--whether through fairs or markets or bars or sidewalks--potentially more relevant to those who might not have considered it before. (Although the schlepping is a barrier to entry; says the one with bad shoulders.) It'll be interesting to see how this change in retail models will effect browsing traditions, especially in terms of sections and depth of stock; when you don't have an affordable ten-year lease in your back pocket, it's harder to develop a German History or Theatre section.
But it's also likely that the trade will expand into rather unfamiliar territory--perhaps in search of some of the dollars that have been diverted elsewhere (to rents and cell-phone contracts). By now, on the everyday level, the screen has supplanted paper as popular medium, so that--strangely--non-rare books have themselves acquired some degree of rarity. I.e. when you happen to come across someone who's reading a book, and you compare her to someone who's palming a screen, it's now obvious that the book isn't only providing her with information, but it's also producing a particular posture in her, and a certain mode of attention. A number of booksellers--in their own styles--seem to be hunting for the value within this strangeness (i.e. Heather O'Donnell's bees or D. Anthem's zombie-vaccine). But this probably isn't all that different from Rosenbach hyper-linking the steamship with the auction house; the tradition of the trade is entrepreneurial, which is a source of real (and non-sentimental) inspiration.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
For this summer, I'm working with colleagues to carve out a weekend curiosity shop from the front of our shared office space. I thought I'd already sworn off retail (twice), but it's a good group of people involved, and the location has promise. If I can settle into a rhythm, I'm also hoping to issue a digital catalog on Charles H. Kerr & Company. It'll be the fourth--and likely last--catalog that I design with the subscription service Mailchimp. Past examples (like Withdrawn) have generated great feedback. But it's just pure windmills trying to compete for screen-attention with (free) gossip & pornography. For the autumn I'm working to publish my first print catalog, on those nineteenth-century myths I'd mentioned before. But the material never seems to want to sit still long enough.