Bright Young Booksellers: Erika Hapke Knowles
How did you get started in rare books?
I’ve always loved old things; I started selling vintage home goods in my Etsy shop La Roux Vintage back as a college freshman, and at local flea markets when I was in grade school! I’ve had a lifelong love of both books and antiques, so when I saw a part-time position open for a packing assistant at (what was then) F.A. Bernett, Inc. I jumped at the chance to spend time in a rare book shop. I never imagined then that it was the first step on my career path; at the time I was planning on working in animation! I’d attended Mass. College of Art with that goal in mind but ended up with a dual degree majoring in both communication design and art history – I’d accidentally taken enough history electives to earn a second degree.
What is your role at Bernett Penka?
I am the office manager, but like most rare book shops we all wear a lot of different hats!
What do you love about the book trade?
I love the material we are privileged enough to handle – particularly when I come across a book I’m completely unfamiliar with. In recent years we’ve been cataloging a lot of books and pamphlets created during times of political crisis and upheaval; publications made underground by passionate people working with whatever materials and printing methods they could access. I love learning about the circumstances surrounding a book’s creation, the reason for its existence and what purpose it filled then vs now. I also love our customers – we work primarily with universities and libraries and therefore spend a lot of time chatting with librarians, who are some of the kindest, most engaging, and enthusiastic people you could ever meet.
Describe a typical day for you:
A Tuesday might start with answering the overnight emails from customers and fellow dealers, preparing new orders for invoicing and shipment, and processing various inventory and office-related expenses. The afternoon often involves taking photographs of new material and editing images. I often help in preparing various lists of titles we’d like to offer to customers during upcoming in-person visits and book fairs. There are always ongoing projects such as preparing images for our website, tracking ingoing and outgoing shipments, taxes, payroll, and bookkeeping.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?
We’ve occasionally acquired full runs of the French arts journal Cocorico, which I absolutely loved looking through. It’s a veritable who’s-who of art nouveau luminaries working at the turn of the 20th century. It’s illustrated throughout with graphic works, paintings, caricatures, cartoons, and photographs that I’d never seen, all striking in their careful linework and design. We’ve also cataloged several artists books by the Cuban publishing collective Ediciones Vigía. Each book is both a poetry publication and a unique, handmade art object. As a collage artist and illustrator, I find them incredibly inspiring.
What do you personally collect?
I have two book collections at the moment: a set of mid-century illustrated children’s books about cats, and a growing collection of reference books, publications, and ephemera outlining the history of my hometown of New Milford, Connecticut. I was privileged enough to host a talk about this second collection just last month for the Ticknor Society. Outside of books, I collect vintage Polan Katz umbrellas!
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love thrifting and running around flea markets to source for my vintage Etsy shop – I participate in the occasional local pop-up market, which is a much more engaging way to interact with my fellow vintage lovers rather than just over the internet. I’ve worked seasonally as a bartender and waitress for the Boston Pops orchestra since I was in college, which keeps me on my toes. I’m a very passionate but very amateur gardener and enjoy a glass of wine with friends and a laughably bad 80s movie any chance I get.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
I feel very encouraged to see the direction of the rare book trade – young collectors are being supported and attending book fairs in great numbers, many new and exciting dealers have opened shop just these past few years, and books as meaningful objects seem to be having a renaissance in the collective zeitgeist. I love to see the exciting new push in collecting among universities and museums of material that had been historically underrepresented in their holdings; women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ as both authors themselves and subject matter, as well as reexamining the value of ephemera like comic books, zines, and digital media.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
We will be participating in the Boston Book Fair, our hometown fair this November, and we have been issuing lists and catalogs of new material a few times a month, all of which can be viewed on our new website, www.bernettpenka.com