Dividing Line Books Owner Evan Miller on Specialising in Counterculture

Image courtesy of Evan Miller

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Evan Miller, proprietor of Dividing Line Books in New York City:

How did you get started in rare books?

I got started in rare books through non-rare books, and in non-rare books through a love of literature, ideas, and the written word. Books have always seemed the most natural life accessory, and I've accumulated them in great numbers wherever I go. My transition into bookselling feels sometimes like an accident, at other times foreordained. I didn't come up in the trade, and I've never had the good fortune to work for an established rare book firm, or even a general used book store. So my journey has been mostly self-directed, with all of the struggles and set-backs that such a foolhardy approach entails. 

When did you open Dividing Line and what do you specialize in?

I started selling books as Dividing Line in 2017. I was living with my partner in Seattle, and we'd just made the somewhat precipitous decision to move to New York. I had a library of several thousand books, reading copies mostly, which I was not prepared to schlep cross-country. Rather than bring them all to our neighborhood bookshop (the peerless Magus Books, where many had come from in the first place), I decided to try my hand at selling some of the more collectible titles online. 

"Dividing Line" was inspired by a couple of books that happened to be sitting on my shelf at the time. One was a cheap Dover edition of William Byrd's entertaining piece of 18th-century Americana, Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. The other was a copy of experimental poet Susan Howe's 1978 book, Secret History of the Dividing Line, which borrows its title from one of the two versions of Byrd's history—the bawdy "secret" version, which he originally wrote in code. Anyway, Dividing Line struck me as catchy in a sort of cryptic way and so I went with it, never really thinking it would still be following me around six years later. 

Like a lot of dealers I know, literary modern firsts were my stepping stone into the trade. While I still sell plenty of those, I've been developing specialties in 20th and 21st century counterculture. I'm drawn to the odd and transgressive. I've done a few catalogs of psychedelia and drug literature. I've done one of artists' books (and am working on another). I dabble in smut and the occult, and buy interesting LGBTQIA+ material whenever I see it. Last winter, I partnered with my colleagues at Better Read Than Dead Books to purchase the library of the late New York School poet Kenward Elmslie, and we issued a joint catalog of material from that collection. I'm happy to think of myself as a generalist, meaning I'm generally willing to try my hand at selling books in areas that interest me—whatever sticks, sticks.

What do you love about the book trade?

How seamlessly it dovetails with one's natural interests and curiosities. It's really a wonderful support system for learning more about the things you'd like to learn more about. It also bears noting, as so many others have in this space, that the book trade is filled with an inordinate number of good and kind people; I'm very thankful for the acquaintances and friends I've made so far.

Describe a typical day for you:

Atypical and unromantic. Our occasional use of the first-person plural notwithstanding, Dividing Line remains a home-based solo act. Thus I have a lot of roles to fill. Any given day might involve a chaotic mix of the following: answering emails, packing orders, dropping packages at my neighborhood post office, cataloging new material, photographing new material, setting up or taking down my photography station, photo-editing, managing digital files and online inventory, designing catalogs with InDesign, scouting for material online or in-person, bookkeeping, drafting Instagram posts, wrestling with Mailchimp, moving piles of books around in a vain attempt to find unused shelf space, etc. Adaptability and constant gear-changing are the names of the game. 

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

I worry sometimes that I've lost an honest frame of reference for this sort of question, given the commercial imperatives of bookselling and their inevitable effect on one's judgments of value—which is to say, even non-financial value. These days I often feel fondest about an item in retrospect, after I've seen its positive qualities reflected by a customer. 

Here's a slightly long-winded story by way of example: a few months ago, a new customer who happened to be in the city came by to pick up something he'd reserved from me online. We'd planned for him to come upstairs and look through some uncataloged material but when the time came I was mildly sick and didn't feel comfortable inviting him in, so he asked if I could bring a few things downstairs to show him. He collects artists' books, and as he told me more about his interests, something came to mind. It was a funny little thing: one of those diminutive art books from the 1950s or 60s which one can find piles of at thrift stores and upstate book barns, with a couple dozen images of paintings by the likes of Rembrandt or Bruegel reproduced in miniature, and an introductory essay by some art historian of musty repute. 

Except that this copy had been altered by an anonymous book artist, who had taped blank pieces of paper over all the images and all the text. Even the numbers at the bottoms of the pages had tiny dots of paper taped over them. I'd bought it for a modest sum a couple of years before. I knew it wasn't worth a lot of money but I thought it was cool—I appreciated the gesture, its attitude, the crudity of its erasure—and loosely planned to put it in an upcoming catalog of artists' books, even though I had my doubts about whether anybody else would share my enthusiasm. 

My customer down on the street certainly didn't seem enthusiastic at first. But he patiently turned it over and inspected the taped-up covers and began leafing through the pages. As he did, I could see that whatever had charmed me about the book was slowly working its charm on him. And his being charmed by it had the magical effect of recharming me, whose initial enthusiasm for the thing had frankly waned in the time it had been sitting around my apartment. By the time he reached the end he was smiling; he got it, he liked it, he wanted it, and I sold it to him for only a little more than what I'd paid for it originally. 

Things worked out nicely in the end, because he was intrigued enough to come back the next week just before leaving town and pick out a more substantial stack—a rent-paying stack, to be frank, and full of things I might well have nominated as my "favorite" at the time. But now I have to check my notes to even remember what they were; it's the exchange of that little altered book that will always stick with me.

What do you personally collect?

I have a delightful collection of mass-market and trade paperbacks which I've read and at some point may re-read, or give to friends, or trade in at my wonderful neighborhood shop, Topos Bookstore. I also have an ignominious collection of books which I bought knowing little about but thinking might be good and profitable inventory for Dividing Line, and which proved on further investigation to be neither. These I hide away in old banker's boxes until they've reached some physical or psychical critical mass, at which point I check them one last time for treasure and purge the remainder through a "must take all" craigslist free ad. I should note that this collection is growing at a much slower rate than in years past, which I take as a good sign. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

On occasion, I'll cook a nice meal; now and then, a late night with friends; from time to time, a little exercise; once in a while, a photo walk in the city; of a blue moon, dust off my guitar and play some music. Also I'm a terribly good sleeper and enjoy it. 

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

I'm decidedly more optimistic about the state of the trade than I am about the state of the world. I have of course been given to understand that there is a generation of booksellers for whom certain social and technological changes have been the cause of much hand wringing and high-minded lamentation. I'm sympathetic to some of those concerns, embarrassed by the antiquity of others. Mostly I'm impressed by the younger generation of dealers and collectors and curators I see around me: by their adaptability, their progressive bent, and their dedication to reflecting the true diversity of print culture. I think there will continue to be plenty of work for them in coming years.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

I'll have a table at the Empire State Rare Book and Print Fair here in New York on October 5-7. I'm currently working on cataloging new material for that event, and will likely send out a list of highlights concurrent with the fair. Otherwise, I issue new catalogs every month or two via my email list, and do my best to maintain a regular Instagram presence