Bright Young Booksellers: Aaron Beckwith
Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Aaron Beckwith of Capitol Hill Books in Washington, DC:
How did you get started in rare books?
I started working at Capitol Hill Books in 2004. Once I proved to Jim, the owner, that I knew the alphabet (one of the few interview questions) and was fairly competent, he was generous enough to start explaining what a first edition was and how to identify one. Soon after, my friend Matt Wixon took over the online rare book operation at the store. Through our occasional trips to book sales, I started learning about this weird world of foxing, slightly chipped dust jackets, and ornery customers (and booksellers). Who can resist that?
Soon after I was making a number of dubious purchases on E-Bay. Eventually, I went to Catholic University for Library Science, and took a really great History of the Book course. I've been hooked ever since.
I understand you are in the process of buying Capitol Hill Books. How is that going?
Things are good! As Jim always says of me to our customers, "this is the guy trying to buy me out!" Several of us who have worked at the store have a great relationship with Jim and have been discussing it with him for awhile. We have a deep love for the place and are ready to keep the store humming when Jim wants to retire.
Matt Wixon, the friend I mentioned above, actually started a moving company, Bookstore Movers, to raise the funds to buy the store, and the two companies support each other in a number of ways. A few employees, such as myself, have worked for both businesses and fill in at whichever place needs help that day. We are allies and we'll be around to support each other for many years to come.
We've got enough to keep us busy in the meantime. Last fall the bookstore partnered with the Poet Laureate office at the Library Congress to host a Day of the Dead Dance Party. We built an altar to Sam Shepard, Derek Walcott, and Carrie Fisher, all authors that had passed in the last year. We drank mezcal rickys and danced as only librarians and booksellers can--with nerdy exuberance and capes.
On a recent trip to Mexico, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a fellow used bookstore, A Través del Espejo. In the memorandum, the two stores agreed to become "sister stores" and engage in activities that "promote friendship between Mexican and American readers, and foment increased understanding of the literary cultures that exist in each country." We plan to return at least once a year to take them some books, explore the taco scene, and do some book scouting ourselves.
What do you love about the book trade?
I've been lucky enough to have a number of mentors who have shown me the ropes, and making those unexpected relationships has been particularly special. Jim is certainly number one. Erik Delfino was my professor at Catholic University and taught the History of the Book class. This was at the height of e-readers and "The Book Is Dead!" hysteria. Erik was able to contextualize all of this from the oral tradition, to sumerian tablets, to the codex, moveable type, and on up to audiobooks and e-readers. He calmed us all down and taught a great course in the process.
Another whole world opened up when I met Brian Cassidy, who introduced me to CABS (Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminars), or Rare Book Camp, as I think of it. There, I saw how varied the booksellers' and librarians' interests were. Everyone got excited when talking about their collecting or research specialties (whether death, carnivals, or some esoteric binding technique), and there was this great "Oh you like weird stuff, too!" series of epiphanies.
The trade runs the gamut with old salts, new salts, and wide-eyed naifs like me. Just about everyone has been eager to share advice, though, including "I hope you don't want to make money." I don't, so we're good there!
Describe a typical day for you:
Every Thursday, I borrow Jim's car for what we call "the circuit." I drive all over the DMV looking for books, both general store stock or more rare stuff. I'll fill up a couple carts, focusing on $7 paperbacks. The first question upon my return is whether I found any Vonnegut or Murakami, but I sometimes find some rare gems along the way.
I drive the loaded car back to the shop, and usually enter to find Jim in great mental distress due to a customer using one of the words that is banned in our store (sweet, like, perfect, Amazon, OMG, etc) "Gahhhhhh! You're giving me braaaaaaain damage!"
After the proper excoriation, we have our weekly informal happy hour with the "Destickering Crew". These are a rotating cast of friends and roustabouts who come to the store after we close to take the stickers off the books, drink, make book puns and, ideally, not talk too much about politics. The night generally ends with margaritas, chili con queso and, of course, more book talk.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you've handled?
That's tough, because in Library Science school at CUA we were able to tour the rare book collections of all the major institutions in DC, and at the Library of Congress, for instance, they played all the hits. So getting to see some early Galileo, or all of Charles Dickens's first editions at one time was pretty dang cool.
My favorite, though, was a self-made Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. It came from Israel and whoever had owned it had created their own monsters and included extensive descriptions (in Hebrew) and drawings. It was fascinating to look at, and the time period worked out that this author was in Israel playing D&D at the same time I was a husky lad doing the same up in Michigan. He or she created two of their own monsters, and I was drawn to the care and creativity that went into it. The manual ended up being my first ever book fair sale, so I have fond memories.
What do you personally collect?
It's become increasingly hard to distinguish what I'm collecting for myself, and what I'm just holding on to for a couple years before selling. But looking at my shelves now, there's a lot of books from the WW1 and the Lost Generation, the remnants of a hypermodern fetish, Wodehouse Penguins, Virginia Woolf, and a lot about food, cooking, and cocktails.
I also just started a collection of casual dining menus from places like T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's, IHOP, etc. I recently read that Applebee's used to have quail on the menu, so really hoping to track that one down at some point.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Mainly I like to travel, cook, and read. Though I rarely get to play these days, 4-Square, the old playground game, is probably my favorite past-time. I'll bring some chalk and a ball to the next book fair.
I've been swimming more and more too. Mostly I do a lazy, frolickey backstroke while staring at the ceiling of the pool trying to think of anagrams for "incunabula."
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I'm pretty new to the trade, so it's a little tough for to say anything with any authority. I've been thinking more about nostalgia cycles though, and I'd guess there's some previously unconsidered 80s or 90s items that we'll start seeing soon on the margins of the book trade, something like early Trapper Keepers.
One idea we want to follow through on at Capitol Hill Books is to host some booksellers at the shop every now and then. We'd have them set up a small display and give a talk about their experiences in the book trade, or their specialty, or wherever they wanted to take it. The trade has so many interesting, vibrant personalities, and having a space to share that and bring together the disparate parts of the DC book community would work well.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
We did our first catalogue on Hemingway and the Lost Generation last winter, and it was a blast to put together. We were able to partner up with the Pen Faulkner Foundation, Shakespeare Theater Company, and Riverby Books, our fellow booksellers on Capitol Hill. We met a lot of cool book and theater people, and sold a fair bit at our rare book pop-ups.
In the next year, we'll focus a little more on events. We're doing three book fairs - Ann Arbor, Richmond, and Washington, DC. In the shop, we'll continue to host our monthly free wine and cheese parties. Book people plus free booze always equals interesting times.
A friend also brings in a couple kegs of homebrew to the shop every month or two. He's been called the Björk of Homebrewing. We're certainly not above bribing people to buy our books, and it works every time.