Blog Posts

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Alexis Sirrakos, proprietor of Walnut Street Paper in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.  Alexis and Walnut Street will have a booth at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair this weekend in New York.

How did you get started in rare books?

Bookstores and libraries have always been a favorite space of mine. As a child, I was lucky enough to live across from a library and would often go there to relax in a quiet corner and read about different worlds, different lives, and overall immerse myself in the stories I would find there. Even as a child, I recognized and appreciated that some objects have more of a historical and intrinsic value than others, which fueled much of my collecting growing up, starting with stamps (my father just retired from the Postal Service) and continuing with some of my favorite books.

As I got older, in the back of my mind I would fantasize about owning my own bookstore someday. At the time it didn’t seem very feasible and so in college I took a different path and became a science teacher. Once I became a mother, I decided to leave the profession and stay home to raise my two little girls. During the next 5 years, I had the opportunity to really reflect about my future as a professional and my dream of becoming a bookstore owner or bookseller became more and more enticing and doable.

So over the last two years I have been buying some inventory here and there while researching how to do it. I have learned quite a bit by continuously asking questions to current bookstore owners whose shops I come across, the local small business development center in our town, and friends who are booksellers and business owners while also attending the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) this past summer. With this beginner’s knowledge under my belt, my appreciation for collectible objects, coupled with my love of books, allowed me to really believe that becoming a rare bookseller is the professional journey I want to take.

When did you open Walnut Street and what do you specialize in?

Over the last two years we have been selling vintage advertisements and antique/rare books through small street fairs in our town, however, we officially made Walnut Street Paper a company in August 2019! We just signed a lease on a small space above the new/used bookstore in our small town. Our goal is to officially open in mid-October and we are currently working on giving the space our own personal touch. Our specialties, thus far, are illustrated literature classics and children’s books, beautiful, ornate, interestingly bound books, original movie posters, maps and magazine ads. We are really hoping to be considered a shop for curated gifts and new collectors.

What do you love about the book trade?

What I have loved so far is the camaraderie of the trade. Most sellers I speak with have been very willing to impart their own knowledge, be supportive in my desire to be a part of their community, and are ready to connect with me as a new colleague.

Describe a typical day for you:

My typical day consists of getting my children ready for school, walking them there, and coming home to get work done on the business until I have to go pick them up. Since going to CABS, I have really been focusing on researching and cataloguing inventory in preparation for the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair. I have also been working on securing a retail space, purchasing inventory, as well as the branding and marketing for the business.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

In our inventory right now, my favorite is a first edition copy of Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish (Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY: 1904). I really admire Parrish’s artistic abilities and seek out his illustrations, magazine covers, and posters when I can.

What do you personally collect?

I have always been a collector of things starting with stamps, old pennies, some books, magazine ads or photographs I found interesting and even current newspapers that memorialize an incredible event. I unknowingly started collecting Pride & Prejudice sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, but would love to start collecting different editions of Alice in Wonderland.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love to read, photograph, paddle board and kayak, play board/card games, and hike.

Thoughts on the present state or future of the rare book trade?

I am hopeful. Hopeful that in this age of technology the new generations will still understand and appreciate artifacts for their historical value.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

Our very first fair will be the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair in Greenpoint, NY on September 7th & 8th and we will also have a booth at the Allentown Paper Show on October 5th & 6th.

A quartet of sales I'll be watching this week:

On Wednesday, September 4, Heritage Auctions sells The Maurice Car Collection of Arts and Sciences Featuring Rare Books and Manuscripts, in 243 lots. A leaf of Isaac Newton manuscript notes on physics and geometry has an opening bid of $25,000. A collection of Tristan Tzara manuscripts about Dadaism, exquisitely bound by Paul Bonet, was bid up to $23,000 by Saturday afternoon. Other lots include a collection of Ezra Pound letters (opening at $5,000); a Paul Gauguin manuscript French/Polynesian dictionary (opening at $4,000); and letters and sketches by the likes of Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse.

Forum Auctions holds an online sale of Books and Works on Paper on Thursday, September 5, in 205 lots. Lots 1–19 are from the library of the late Dr. Gutala Krishnamurti, the founder of the Eighteen Nineties Society. Expected to lead the way are a 1778–79 quarto edition of the Encyclopédie and a 1662 Paris folio edition of Laonicus' Histoire Generale des Turcs (both estimated at £1,000–1,500). A near-complete set of Matrix is estimated at £800–1,200.

Also on Thursday, PBA Galleries sells Rare Books & Manuscripts on Thursday, in 302 lots. A sixty-volume limited edition set of Dickens published in 1902, and including a tipped-in autograph letter by Dickens, rates the top estimate at $8,000–12,000. Victor Rendu's Ampelographie Française (1857), with seventy chromolithographic plates, could fetch $7,000–10,000. An inscribed copy of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast with a tipped-in presentation letter is estimated at $6,000–9,000. Lots following Lot 259 are being sold without reserve.

Rounding out Thursday's sale is Heritage Auctions' Rare Books Signature Auction Featuring The Otto Penzler Collection of Mystery Fiction, Part II. There are 828 lots on offer, including a first edition of Ulysses (with reserve set at $38,500). A lovely copy of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1938), in the original jacket, was bid up to $21,000 by Saturday. An original Arthur Rackham frontispiece for The Pied Piper of Hamelin starts at $14,500. Also on the block are a presentation copy of Wilkie Collins' After Dark (starting at $5,000) and a copy of the first American edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (starting at $1,750).

Richard Booth, who died on August 19 aged 80, established the small market town of Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll) in Wales as the world’s first book town.

Booth was born in Devon in the southwest of England but grew up in Hay and was educated at the historic school Rugby before going to Oxford to study history where he became interested in book collecting. After a short-lived stint as an accountant, Booth opened his first bookshop in 1961 in Hay’s former fire station and built up his stock by shipping books over from the USA as well as buying up well-stocked personal libraries from the great and the good in the UK. His efforts throughout the 1970s were followed by others until Hay became known as the world’s leading location for secondhand bookshops.

Although bookselling was close to his heart, his ambition was much wider. He saw Hay as the beginning of an international project in which sustainable book towns in rural locations around the world would be set up and supported to revive local economies and halt migration towards cities. His inspiration transformed Hay’s local economy which today still attracts visitors from all over the world and Booth was rewarded with an MBE for services to Welsh tourism. One spin-off from his success is the annual 10-day Hay Literary Festival which itself has spawned sister ‘Hay’ festivals around the world.  

When I wrote a book about the international book town movement two years ago, representatives of every book town around the world spoke his name in reverent tones, keenly aware that without him the entire network would probably never have been established. Unsurprisingly, he was made honorary life president of the International Organisation of Booktowns and at various times planned to move abroad permanently to several of them.

Booth’s achievement stemmed partly from his skill as a headline-grabbing showman with a strong dislike of bureaucracy, centralization, and politicians, as a quick browse of his website Richard King of Hay reveals. In 1977 he crowned himself the King of Hay or King Richard Cœur de Livre and announced his home town was an independent kingdom, garnering spectacular media attention in the process as he appointed his horse as his prime minister and issued his own passports. Despite the eccentricities, his devotion to books was such that when the dilapidated Hay Castle which he owned caught fire that same year, firefighters are said to have been obliged to tie him to a tree as the only way of restraining him from rushing inside repeatedly to save books from the flames. His 1999, My Kingdom of Books, details his version of these events in typically spirited fashion.

Over the years he set up various bookshops in Hay, the main operation being Richard Booth’s Bookshop, at one time certified as the world’s largest secondhand bookshop, which is still open, a decade after he relinquished the reins to American businesswoman Elizabeth Haycox.

Booth’s funeral in Hay at the end of August was held in a packed church, with several hundred people also attending outside. There are plans for future celebrations this month on September 12, his birthday, and October 31. He is survived by his third wife, Hope Barrie.

The reading public has long been fascinated with anything having to do with Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre and the source of untold spinoffs, movies, and commentary. In fact, Jane Eyre has never gone out of print and has been translated into nearly 60 languages.

Now from the Center for Cartoon Studies and Hyperion Books comes a book that explores the woman behind the classic in Charlotte Brontë before Jane Eyre. Written and illustrated by cartoonist Glynnis Fawkes, the 112-page graphic novel takes middle-grade readers on a trip back to 1837, when young Charlotte faced unrelenting discouragement and setbacks on the path to literary success, all set to the brooding backdrop of the isolated parsonage the Brontë family called home.

Fawkes’ pen-and-ink illustrations are crisp and vivid, capturing in shades of black, white, and gray the oppressive and highly patriarchal world Brontë navigated. It’s a biography that examines Brontë’s formative years and the challenges she faced. Fawkes intersperses Brontë’s own words, where possible, to better express her personality.

Fellow cartoonist Alison Bechdel provides an introduction into why Jane Eyre remains as relevant today as it did when first published under the pen name “Currer Bell” in 1847. A postscript and panel discussions explaining Fawkes’ thought process behind certain illustrated panels round out the book. 

Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre is a fantastic introduction to one of Western literature’s most enduring authors. Tuck this one into your child’s backpack, there’s much here to inspire anyone apprehensive about heading back to school. And though most middle-grade readers may not be quite ready to pick up Jane Eyre, Fawkes’s biography will whet their appetite.

Landing in mailboxes this week (if not already) is our fall quarterly, the last page of which features book collector and NASA engineer Michael L. Ciancone. Can you guess what he collects? If you guessed books about rockets and spaceflight, give yourself a gold star.

The first book Ciancone bought for his collection is also his favorite: The Conquest of Space (Penguin Press, 1931) by David Lasser. As he told us, “Lasser was a founder and first president of the American Interplanetary Society in 1930, which became the American Rocket Society a few years later. They eventually joined with the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences in 1963 to form what we know today as the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. Thus, this book represents the start of a thread that runs to the present. It is also the first English-language non-fiction book on the possibility of using rockets for human spaceflight. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Lasser in 1992.”

Ciancone built upon that purchase, adding 600+ more books to his collection. He also published Foreword to Spaceflight: An Illustrated Bibliography of Pre-1958 Publications on Rocketry & Space Travel (Apogee Press, 2018). Foreword to Spaceflight is the long-anticipated update to Ciancone’s previous book, The Literary Legacy of the Space Age. It offers a unique resource for book collectors and historians alike through hundreds of annotated entries that identify books in several languages related to the use of rockets for spaceflight published before Sputnik.

The Literary Legacy of The Space Age by Michael L. Ciancone is the most current, most comprehensive and most useful bibliography of nonfiction monographs documenting high altitude rocket research and flight into space published before 1958,” said ABAA bookseller L.W. Currey. “The scope of this updated second edition is substantially expanded with the addition of an extensive list of nonfiction works on rocketry and space travel in Russian through 1957 compiled by Prof. Asif Siddiqi, with contributions by Ciancone. Additionally, the new edition includes pictures of covers and dust jackets of many of the works described, which provides a wonderful iconography of early space art. For early publications on rocketry and spaceflight, this book is the Brockett for the space age.”

You can read more about Ciancone’s collection in our fall issue.

In 1913, the poet Blaise Cendrars collaborated with artist Sonia Delaunay to produce La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by letterpress and pochoir. The book became a landmark in the field of book arts, noted for its striking combination of avant-garde typography and abstract imagery. 

Kitty Maryatt of Two Hands Press began researching the production of La Prose du Transsibérien in 2012, culminating in 2018 with the publication of a new edition of 150 copies. (We interviewed Maryatt and covered this publication in our summer 2017 issue). Simultaneous with the publication of the new edition of La Prose, Maryatt and her underwriters commissioned fine bindings by design binders from all around the world. A new traveling exhibition entitled Drop Dead Gorgeous: Fine Bindings of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation will display these twenty-two design bindings alongside Maryatt's La Prose du Transsibérien. Featured designers include Don Glaister, Monique Lallier, Midori Kunikata-Cockram, and Julian Thomas.

The exhibition opens in San Francisco on September 6, with an opening reception at the San Francisco Center for the Book, 375 Rhode Island Street, on September 6 from 6:00-8:00 pm. Maryatt will also be leading a workshop at the SFCB over the weekend to introduce people to traditional French pochoir. Related events include a screening of a documentary produced about Maryatt's re-production of La Prose on October 4 from 6:00-8:00, again at the San Francisco Center for the Book. The original 1913 publication will also be on special exhibit on October 5 at Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts from 3:00-5:00 pm.

When it closes in October, the exhibition will travel, first to UCLA from October 12 through January 5, 2020, and then to Minneapolis, Boston, Montreal, and London in 2020 and 2021.

The Waukegan Public Library in Waukegan, Illinois, unveiled a 12-foot statue of Ray Bradbury last Thursday, August 22, on what would have been the late author’s 99th birthday. The stainless steel sculpture, titled “Fantastical Traveler,” is much like the man himself: brilliant and bursting with creative energy. It features Bradbury riding a rocket ship while holding onto a book and was inspired, said its creator, Zachary Oxman, by Bradbury’s poem, “If Only We Had Taller Been.”   

Bradbury, best known for his novels, The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, was born in Waukegan, a Chicago suburb, on August 22, 1920 and lived there until he was thirteen. A few years after his death in 2012, a proposal to memorialize the town’s literary icon with a piece of public art began to circulate. A committee was formed, funds were raised, and, after 41 artists submitted ideas, Oxman’s exuberant sculpture was chosen. As the Maryland-based sculptor commented at the time, “Bradbury’s writing was not rooted in the possible world, but rather in a fantastical one. I wanted to evoke that whimsicality.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, the $125,000 cost of the statue was financed through donations. Those who gave at least $150 received a book from Bradbury’s personal book collection, which had been donated to the library upon his death. (Bradbury’s manuscripts, art, and rare materials were auctioned in 2014.) 

Another pair of auctions to keep an eye on this week:

On Wednesday, August 28, University Archives holds a sale of Historical Documents, Autographs & Books Including a Large Science Collection, in 255 lots. An 1804 Thomas Paine letter to John Fellows asking for assistance in dealing with a tenant farmer (and for Fellows to please bring Paine his mail) is estimated at $25,000–30,000. A 32-volume set of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper owned by Millard and Caroline Fillmore, deaccessioned from the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Library, could sell for $18,000–20,000. A 1799 Boston legal document signed by Paul Revere as a witness is estimated at $15,000–17,000. Other items on offer include a 1953 Albert Einstein letter ($10,000–12,000); a large collection of documents related to the Coffin family ($4,000–4,500); and 27 separately printed eulogies of George Washington ($2,000–2,400).

Forum Auctions holds an online sale of Maps and Atlases on Thursday, August 29, in 241 lots. A 1589 Ortelius map of the Pacific, the first printed map focused on that ocean, is estimated at £3,000–5,000, as is Jean Baptiste Bourguignon's Nouvel Atlas de la Chine, de la Tartarie Chinoise, et du Thibet (1737), the first survey atlas of China. Forum's description calls this the "most important cartographic record of China from the eighteenth century." A first edition of Tommaso Porcacchi's atlas of islands, L'Isole piu famose del Mondo (Venice, 1572) is estimated at £2,000–3,000. Andrew Dury's 1765 edition of A Chorographical Map of the King of Sardinia's Dominions and A Chorographical Map of the Territories of the Republic of Genoa, once in the library of the First Duke of Westminster, could sell for £2,000–2,500.

This past June Manhattan welcomed a new museum whose goal is to bring outdoor advertising indoors. Dubbed Poster House, it’s the first in the United States entirely devoted to exploring the enduring history and influence of posters. The museum’s 7,000-piece collection highlights 150 years of outdoor advertising, and now it’s adding to that total with the acquisition of 55 posters from the personal archive of graphic designer Paula Scher.

Known for creating the brand identities for Citibank and Tiffany & Co. in her role at Pentagram design studio, Scher’s donation includes rare prints of her own work ranging from the mid-1900s through today.

“These posters are a landmark addition to our permanent collection,” Poster House director Julia Knight commented in a press release. “Paula Scher is among the most renowned graphic designers in the world and we are honored to be housing such incredible examples of her innovative typography and unparalleled sense of design.”

Learn more about this funky new museum and what its founders hope to achieve when your fall issue of Fine Books & Collections arrives in mailboxes this week and next.

Think of French painter Paul Gauguin, and surely Tahiti will come to mind. He first traveled there in 1891, and though disappointed by the pervasiveness of French colonial culture there, he stayed for two years and tried to immerse himself in island culture. He returned in 1895 and stayed on for another few years. It’s clear from this Tahitian-French dictionary in his hand, which is headed to auction on September 5, that he also tried to learn the language.

The four-page dictionary, which lists approximately 246 Tahitian/Polynesian words and their French translations, will be offered among a strong selection of artists’ letters and sketches known as the Maurice Car Collection of Arts and Sciences at Heritage Auctions in New York. The auctioneer believes the artist “probably created this manuscript during one of the two periods of time he lived in Tahiti.” Examples of the words listed in the dictionary are "Ani" for the French word "Demander" (request) and "Ta ahu" for "Habiller" (dress). Gauguin ultimately gave up on Tahiti, though, moving to the French Polynesian island of Hiva Oa in 1901; he died there two years later.

The opening bid for the artist’s work of lexicography is $4,000. You can read more about the Car Collection in our Autumn Auction Guide.