Bright Young Things: John O'Mara
NP: What is your role at Maggs?
JO: Maggs has five departments - Travel, Early British, Modern British, Continental, and Autographs. I'm one of four members of the Early British Department. We handle books and manuscripts up to about 1800 that have some connection to the British Isles. More specifically we are interested in British culture and its dissemination which means that we are able to cast a wide net. Doing so means that we have the freedom and flexibility to discover some remarkable (and often very rare) non-English language items printed outside the British Isles that have some bearing on British history. Within our department each of us function with a fair degree of autonomy. I'm charged with buying books, writing descriptions of the items I buy, selling my purchases and, when required, applying for export licenses for my sales.
NP: How did you get started in rare books?
JO: My grandmother was an antique dealer in the Midwest and from an early age my mom dragged me to antique shows and auctions so an interest in 'old things' is probably to some degree genetic! As a child growing up in rural Massachusetts, I collected stamps, coins and baseball cards and I also liked to wheel and deal. My mom likes to tell the story of when, as a six year old, I wanted to buy a rock from a local antique shop. I brought my prospective purchase to the dealer and asked how much it was. The elderly proprietor thought I was the cutest thing until she quoted me a price for my prize and I replied: "Is that the best you can do?". I discovered that I wanted to work with early printed books after an internship in the Collectibles department at Sotheby's in New York. Books captured my historical imagination and also embodied many of the subjects I was pursuing academically at the time. Once I realized that I wanted to work with books and manuscripts, it was a small step into the trade. Dealing is also a good fit for my temperament - I enjoy taking risk given the prospect of the right return. Dealing books and manuscripts provides me with the opportunity to buy a book or manuscript and to use my knowledge to add value and realize a profit.
NP: Favorite or most interesting book you've handled?
JO: One of the privileges of working at Maggs is that we get to see so many incredible items so it's hard to identify just one. That being said, the two Caxtons that our department handled were really special!
NP: What do you love about the book trade?
JO: Working for one of the old established London firms is like stepping back a century. We have a tea room and traditionally staff members have met at 11 and 4 for tea. I have always been very struck by this tradition and while fewer people meet for tea twice a day these days, the fact that this practice existed at all suggests to me that the firm is deeply grounded by humane values. I think this is generally true for the trade as well. Especially in the UK dealers are very collegial. I've developed great friendships with other dealers, travelled with them and stayed in their homes. The trade is also predicated on trust. In what other business could you borrow an item valued at tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds from another dealer to show to one of your clients without contracts or lawyers? You can do that as a book dealer provided that you are respectable..
NP: Do you want to open your own shop someday?
JO: Who knows what the future holds. However with the demise of H.P Kraus and with Heritage no longer functioning at the level it once did, I see an opportunity in the US for a larger firm that could handle a broad range of books and manuscripts focusing not only on private collectors but also on institutions.
NP: What do you personally collect?
JO: I love the Renaissance and particularly its manifestation in England. I've assembled a small collection of books and manuscripts related to Renaissance Humanism in England. I also am interested in the history of collecting, and the Grand Tour.
NP: If you could live inside the pages of any rare book, which would it be?
JO: I'd probably choose the original manuscript of Samuel Pepys's Diary ... oh the fun he had!
NP: As an American working in the British trade, what do you notice about the difference between British and American antiquarian bookselling?
JO: I've been in the trade for about a decade. I worked in the US for three years, first for a bookseller in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then for myself when I opened my own business. I've been in London for the last seven years working first for Quaritch for about six months and the remainder of the time at Maggs. I think that European dealers generally view bookselling as the means to have a life immersed in culture. The focus isn't so much on how much money one earns but rather on experiences that the trade provides i.e. eating well, drinking good wine and sharing those things with others.
NP: Thoughts on the future of the trade?
JO: It's certainly a time of transition for the trade. Some of the old models that worked for decades (if not centuries) are no longer viable. The internet has something to do with this as does broad cultural change i.e. collecting books isn't as fashionable as it was 50 to 75 years ago. We as booksellers are subject to these changes but we can influence them as well. We need to really believe in what we do and sell the broader public on the idea of collecting books. We need to be missionaries.