Arches Bookhouse's Adam McInturf on book buying trips, Dorothy Day, and CABS Minnesota

Eric Patton

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Adam McInturf, proprietor of Arches Bookhouse in Portland, Oregon:

How did you get started in rare books?

I was actually fairly contemptuous of rare book collecting (and dealing) for a long time. I was interested in books for content. Collecting seemed like little more than commodity fetishism and mimetic rivalry. But then at a library sale I picked up a pretty nice first edition Dorothy Day’s memoir, The Long Loneliness, ironically a book that probably generated some of my contempt for collecting. My own copy was falling apart, so my only motivation was the structural integrity of a sewn binding. (I’m not sure what kind of glue they used on their perfectbounds in the 80’s, but have you ever seen a read Harper paperback from that era with an uncracked spine?).

In spite of my contempt the book did a number on me! Holding the same copy that the first readers held, the copy Dorothy put out into the world, I found myself gripped in a new way by the kind of courage it must have taken to publish one’s story with such honesty and vulnerability. My imagination was fired for the meaning of the Catholic Worker, the struggle for justice in early 20th-century America, and the sense that a huge and immortal personality was once a woman who wrote a book about her friends and her work and her God, and didn’t have any idea how people would feel about it.

That’s when I first “got it” in terms of the power of a book as a physical object to mediate an experience. That awareness of the contingency and happening of a creative work you get in holding a first edition: once it was not, but then, there it is!

That happened somewhere in the middle of my 17 years working for Windows Booksellers, where I began as a college freshman working for Hilda Munk at their Portland outpost. I was mentored by Jon Stock, who still runs the best and one of the only scholarly theology bookstores out of Eugene, which he started in the mid-80’s. For much of that time, I travelled with Jon on cross-country book buying trips, filling a truck and trailer with hard-to-find scholarly theology and philosophy books. At first I was just muscle on those trips, boxing and schlepping. In time, though - like with anything you do enough - I developed a tacit understanding for the work. Just following along and handling everything he pulled sort of taught my hands what a good book is. So even though I quit seminary and never got the PhD I thought I wanted, my real training is in academic books. Sort of like a Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad - I became a fairly competent cook even though I didn’t get too far studying the chemistry.

In terms of beginning to handle rare books as a dealer, that just comes from the Portland book scene. Rachelle Markley was a big influence and encourager early on. She was great dealer here in Portland who founded Crooked House Books and organized the Rose City Book and Paper Fair. She cajoled Hilda and I into doing that fair every Summer, and even though we weren’t exactly trying to do rare books, just the proximity to other great dealers began growing a mindset for rare books.

That fair began my participation in the Cascade Booksellers Association. There is an absurd abundance of great dealers in this guild, and I’ve benefitted massively from their mentorship. Folks like The Scotts (Givens, who now runs Crooked House, and Brown of Downtown Brown Rare Books) Rachel & Roger of Burnside Rare Books, Bill Wolfe of Collins Books up in Seattle, Glenn Mason, Nat DesMarais, Kol Shaver, Ezra Tischman, and on and on.

When did you open Arches Bookhouse and what do you specialize in?

We opened in August 2022. The dream had been cooking in me for awhile, and when I proposed to buy out the store and stock, Jon basically countered with a more generous offer of just handing me the lease and the bookcases after running some clearance sales. I closed down for a few months to do some reorganization and remodeling. Before opening back up, I attended CABS Minnesota in July, which was a transforming experience that I’m still processing and implementing.

We operate on three fronts: neighborhood bookshop, scholarly outfitter, and rare book purveyor. The shop is open six days a week with a general inventory of browsables. For our rare book and online selling operation, we specialize in humanities books––fine, rare, and scholarly. If he were a saint and I weren’t an anabaptist, I guess Erasmus would be our patron saint. I take his approach to the structure of the humanities as our stocking guide: classics, philology, philosophy, literature, and a whole lot of theology.

What do you love about the book trade?

I love being in a line of work that incentivizes and rewards honesty, friendship, fidelity, memory, respect, curiosity. Things I need some external motivators for.

I love the collegiality of the trade. There is a special sense of mutuality among Oregon and Washington dealers in the Cascade Booksellers Association, with a very free sharing of knowledge and resources. Established dealers regularly make good books available to us younger dealers at very advantageous prices. Our regular meetings are well attended and more like a party. I would have become a bookseller just to be part of this club!

I love bookseller lore and traditions and being part of a “storied” profession. For most of my daily practices and operations I can tell an actual story about a specific dealer who showed me how to do it that way. It was very meaningful to me to accepted into trade organizations (CBA & IOBA) where I am accountable to uphold our mutual standards and privileged to draft on the prestige of others committed to the same.

I love road trips. I love the thrill of the hunt, digging through attics and dodging storage-unit avalanches. I love the satisfying action of our Better Pack Model 333 water-activated tape dispenser. There’s not much I don’t enjoy about it!

Describe a typical day for you:

Well, I’m a member of an intentional community. I have two young kids and live in a household with my family, another family of five, my brother, and Arches’s shipping manager, Sparky. So mornings can be a bit involved before Sparky and I walk in to the shop.

When I first get in, I try to catalog complicated things before the business of the day fuzzes up my brain. Usually a little tea-kettle chat with Jessica, Gautam, or Jack, whoever is in that day from our brilliant crew who all also catalog, photograph, ship, and run the counter. We try to pull and ship our online orders early enough to hand them to our mail carrier the same day. The rest of the day we are cataloging and photographing in the interstices between customers. I typically walk down to pick up the kids from school mid-afternoon, then field complaints about the woeful snack situation at the store until my wife picks them up.

Afternoons tend to be busier in the shop, and I enjoy chatting with customers and neighbors.

My wife is home two days a week, so without school drop-off and pick-up duties, I’m more likely to be out scouting or buying a collection those days.

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

I had a Geneva Bible in a lovely but rather understated Zaehnsdorf binding that sold back in October at the Seattle Fair. The owner who commissioned the binding kept a hand-written letter from Ernest Zaehnsdorf addressing a number of her complaints about the relatively muted style of the binding. His letter brilliantly justified his work by testifying to the importance of period-appropriate binding techniques - marbled endpapers, spine gilt, and title label on a 1608 book would be an abomination! Then this cheeky little note - “I rather fancy we discussed these matters when you commissioned the binding!” - a real customer-service chef’s kiss. If that weren’t enough, it also had a book curse written on the NT Title verso by “Elizabeth,” an early owner who imprecated all manner of boils, fetters, disease, and even the gallows on prospective book thieves.

One of those books you immediately regret selling, though my mentors in the trade remind me that actually selling a book on occasion can be important.

What do you personally collect?

Cobblers children have no shoes, and I try not to get high on my own stash. But I do have signed firsts of a few of my “changed my life” books, like The Brothers K, Gilead, Geek Love. I have a modest collection of spiritual writing, especially Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Howard Thurman, as well as the Faber Spiritual Writers and Philokalia. I’m not always clear on the distinction between a collection and a reference library, but the books that are most important to me are my wall of commentaries and theology. Many of them are still in print, but only as perfect-bound POD, and one thing I cannot tolerate is a glued binding when sewn is an option. So I’ve got older T&T Clark editions of my Karl Barth and Nicene Fathers.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I enjoy most activities that involve turning off my phone and not checking my email. Like many Portlanders, that involves reading, hiking, eating, cooking, and drinking various caffeinated, fermented, and distilled beverages. I love spending time with my wife and kids. We are regularly found in Forest Park, an amazing urban forest with miles and miles of trails, right across the St. Johns Bridge from our home. I’m also active in my church congregation where I take a regular turn teaching.

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

I don’t exactly feel qualified to speculate on either matter, but I’ll venture two thoughts. One is that, sure, you can be pessimistic about general literacy trends, iPhones melting our brains and social media incinerating our attention spans, and how all that will impact baseline book interest. But industrialized mass culture always births vigorous countercultures. From my very limited perspective, I see plenty of very motivated book people finding their way to our hard-to-find little shop, many of whom are very young.

My other thought. Humans are creatures of sense and experience––physical objects will always matter to us. As long as people care about ideas and works of art, they will care about the forms under which those things entered the world.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

I plan to do the IOBA Virtual Book Fair from May 2- 4. I also plan to do the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair again in October, and I just paid for my booth at the Rose City Book and Paper Fair, June 14-15. We are planning a whole “Book Week” extravaganza with special events at all of the many great shops throughout town, including Powells, Wallace, Backstory, Monograph Bookwerks, Passages, Melville Books, Parallel Worlds, Revolutions. It’s going to be really great. Plus June in Oregon is basically San Diego weather. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND coming out and spending the week.

I’m working on a catalog of Bibles and Commentaries that I hope to release in April. I’ve been stockpiling Pentecostal and Holiness material that I hope to get around to cataloging at some point. We released a couple of Judaica and Islamic theology and philosophy lists this month, and there will be more of that when I unearth the boxes from the hoarde. I’m also very excited for my first literature catalog devoted to modern literature, which will have some real treats!