Bookseller David Rueger of Editio Altera on blooks, FedEx, and the Republic of Booksellers

David Rueger

David Rueger at Rare Books LAX Book Fair

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with David Rueger, proprietor of Editio Altera in New York.

How did you get started in rare books?

My mother met a New York bookseller at a conference, and suggested I try to get a job with him during the university holidays (this was maybe back around 2007). Earning a handsome $100 a week, I thus got to try my hand at description-writing under the tutelage of Seth Fagen at Martayan Lan, and really enjoyed it; for the most part it was also much less physically demanding than dishwashing or construction work. I liked how long-form descriptions were basically structured much like an undergrad essay: you present some background, you argue your thesis, and you hope your reader gives you an ‘A’.

When did you open Editio Altera and what do you specialize in?

Editio Altera – the name doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it – was so-named because it kind of feels like the second iteration of my business. From 2013-2022, I ran ‘Inlibris LLC’ as a very small American arm of the Viennese firm Antiquariat Inlibris. So Editio (fight that autocorrect!) Altera has only been around since mid-2022, though it didn’t feel like too much of a plunge for me. I’d say that I specialize in non-canonical European books before 1800, with plenty of exceptions. Like most booksellers, I’m an opportunist and buy whatever I think I can sell – so that might be a very rare Spanish herbal, or an engraving of the Chevalière d’Eon, or a treatise on the laws governing prostitution in 17th century Naples.

What do you love about the book trade?

That there seems to be a niche for absolutely everyone in it. There are dealers who buy and sell only the most perfect, unsophisticated copies of early modern books; and then there are dealers who sell only affordable, incomplete copies of the same. There are stunning shops on Madison Avenue or South Kensington catering to the sort of customer who walks in during her lunch-break with a hankering to spend $25,000 on a modern first; and then there are successful booksellers known to us only by their eBay monikers who seem to sell thousands of rare books a month USING ONLY CAPITAL LETTERS IN THEIR LISTINGS. It’s easy to get snooty about it, but together we all form some kind of a Republic of Booksellers, and it warms my heart that all of these colleagues seem to be able to make a living doing what they do. 

Describe a typical day for you:

I think some readers may have seen the hit Netflix series You, which pretty much sums up my typical day-to-day. Although – as a member of the trade, I have to say that I found some of those early scenes absolutely harrowing: what kind of bookseller would think it was a good idea to store his ‘priceless first editions’ in the same cage as a thrashing, bodily fluid-secreting imprisoned love-interest? I think I speak for the entire librarian / book conservation community when I say that the thought is absolutely gut-wrenching, and goes against all standard operating procedures (Bainbridge’s Conservation of Books specifically states that at the very least, mylar jackets should always be applied to vulnerable bindings before confining your love-interest in your vault).

My day in fact begins with an hour and a half commute (subway and train) to get to my office. I try to use this critical time to gaze out of the train window, read over shoulders to gain insight into the lives of fellow passengers, and generally space out. It’s a lovely way to start the day. 

Roughly half the day is spent as you might expect of a glamorous young bookseller: creating FedEx labels; paying DHL import duty invoices; calling FedEx to find out what could possibly be happening in Indianapolis that is compelling enough have halted all of my international packages; delving into the intricacies of the Pass-Through Entity Tax; and so on.  

Finally – and I assume this is common to most booksellers – cataloging is really the most soothing activity I’ve ever experienced. When I get back home from the stresses of a vacation, all I want to do is sit down with a few books and write some descriptions for a few days. Sometimes I’ll emerge from a binge-session bleary-eyed, having finally given up trying to understand what a 19th century Italian historian was trying to say about a 17th century French book, only to learn that in my addled state I have been bamboozled yet again by my wife into agreeing to clean the bathroom or bathe the dog.

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

Or collection? The ‘Women of the Book’ collection now at Johns Hopkins was a lot of fun to work on, and certainly opened my eyes to the astonishingly active publishing industry directed at, and sometimes spearheaded by, early modern nuns. With the freedom not to marry anyone except Christ, many nuns led wonderfully rich lives and created seismic changes within their own convent culture and even within the secular world more broadly. They painted, wrote poetry, criticized their male ecclesiastical overseers, strummed their guitars, got caught in lesbian relationships, and in at least one instance ran a sex cult. And here you were thinking nuns were dull. Although I’ve yet to fully come around on it, these days I am increasingly open to the idea that secular women may have something to offer as well. 

What do you personally collect?

Just two disparate areas: blooks (objects that look like books) and literature produced by/for deaf-mute children (as they were termed back then) – of which there was a surprising amount in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. It’s the kind of uncrowded niche which is cheap enough to pursue, and obscure enough to find new discoveries in. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

Botany was always my first love, and we keep a pretty good collection of greenery alive in our Brooklyn apartment. Once or twice a month I clamber down from my ivory tower and don an apron as the scheduled chef at a soup kitchen – funnily enough, something I started doing right around the same time as bookselling. It’s a good way of connecting with the real world, essentially the opposite of selling rare books. 

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

See above re: ‘there’s a niche for everyone’. Rare book dealers are a hardy species; I can readily imagine that when stamp seals were being replaced by cylinder seals in Mesopotamia and everyone was busy tossing out their outdated media, some predatory seal-dealer was prowling around hoovering up stamp seals, having already made his fortune selling proto-cuneiform tablets to wealthy private tablet collectors. 

Talking to slightly greyer booksellers than myself, there’s definitely a perception that the ‘fat years’ (as they say in German) of bookselling were in the late 90s, and everything has sort of gone downhill since then. From my perspective, coming in a little later, there’s been a tremendous shift in the last 20 years towards neglected forms of media like ephemera, but it doesn’t really feel like the ‘traditional’ rare book trade has suffered from that. So, I’m not worried about the future of the trade as a whole, nor the ‘early book’ niche – and hey, we are always going to be absurdly affordable compared to the modern art scene. 

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

Although I now have five ABAA fairs under my belt as a solo exhibitor, I’m not sure I’ve quite figured out the fair scene. It seems perverse to have to set aside your best stuff for months; but if I don’t, then I have nothing worth exhibiting. Anyways, in my tiny booth at the New York Armory in April I’ll be showing off some selections from a new collection, ‘The Century of Women’, as well as a few dozen items from my regular stock.