Bright Young Booksellers: Victoria Forsberg-Lary

Credit: Derek Delahunt

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Victoria Forsberg-Lary of Cellar Stories in Providence, Rhode Island:

How did you get started in rare books? 

Unintentionally. I had worked a series of unsatisfying jobs in the past and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but had compiled a short list of things I knew I did not want to do. I saw a job opening at the local used bookstore where my dad had always shopped, and it seemed to fit all of my criteria (financial security was obviously not on my list). I had no previous experience with books other than reading them, and no idea that the job would even involve rare books at all. Once I started handling antiquarian books on a regular basis, I began to appreciate books in a completely new way and I immediately became fascinated with them.

What is your role at Cellar Stories?

Officially, I’m the manager, although I recently received an email addressed to “storykeeper” and I think that title may be more fitting. For the first four years of my employment, I was essentially the owner’s personal assistant -- in addition to helping him run the daily retail operations, I was also responsible for most of the bookkeeping, bills, payroll and other managerial tasks. He passed away unexpectedly in 2018, at which point I absorbed the rest of his responsibilities and took on more of a leadership position at the store. 

What do you love about the book trade?

One of the main things that drew me to this job in the first place and that I still love about it is the ethics of it. I like knowing that what I’m selling isn’t hurting anyone or destroying the planet or supporting a giant corporation. I like that I get to help prolong the life of an old book, to know that it will be appreciated and treasured and possibly even change someone’s life. I love knowing that my employer was not unique in his enthusiasm for mentoring, that most booksellers are not only willing but excited to help each other and share their knowledge with newcomers. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie and respect within the trade that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I love that every book I touch is unique in its own way, even if it isn’t considered rare. Anything secondhand has a history, and each book has changed hands and owners multiple times before it even gets to me. I really enjoy taking part in that discovery process and I love that I have a job where I get to learn new things every day.

Describe a typical day for you:

We usually either have no customers at all for the first half of the day or someone waiting outside the door right when we open. He’ll sit and read and attempt to make small talk while my coworker and I process and pack the online orders. There’s just two of us on staff and we have upwards of 80,000 books in the store, so there’s plenty of work to keep us both busy. In the afternoons I usually sort through and price inventory while she catalogues and shelves it. When our customer finally leaves after finishing his fourth novel and paying for his $3 paperback, I settle the cash drawer and call it a day.

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

Although I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to handle so many beautiful, rare, centuries-old items, I think most of my favorite things were fairly commonplace and of no actual value, usually items found tucked inside of books. My coworker once found a heartbreaking correspondence between two women in a secret relationship that brought me to tears. My most exciting find is still probably a perfectly preserved prophylactic inside of a 1940s photography book about filters.

What do you personally collect?

For books- nothing seriously, but I love paper mechanics and miniatures, so I am always buying pop-ups and tiny books. I try to acquire any utopian feminist science fiction I can find. Otherwise, I have a small (pun intended) collection of dollhouse furniture and horse figurines.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I have an apprenticeship with a bookbinder who is teaching me to restore antiquarian books, but I’m not sure that counts as entirely ‘outside of work.’ I enjoy doing almost any type of handicraft, but I generally stick to collage, paint, paper, and fabric arts.

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

I would love to be able to share some hope and positivity, but after a year-long pandemic, it’s looking a little bleak at the moment. We still receive online orders steadily and I have no doubt that the rare book aspect of the trade will continue to thrive, but things don't look quite so bright for the brick-and-mortar dealing in general stock. Luckily, Cellar Stories does a bit of both, but at the moment it’s hard to say what the future holds.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

Not any time soon. The last few years for me have mostly been focused on damage control following the owner’s death and now the pandemic. We have a big sale every Spring and Fall, so those are the only events we have planned at the moment. I’d love for Cellar Stories to participate in a book fair at some point, but for now I’m grateful to have the opportunity to assist other sellers at fairs and get some more experience in that area. I’m planning to be at the New York fair again this year with my friends at the Eclectibles ephemera booth.