Bright Young Things: David Eilenberger

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with David Eilenberger, our first southern bookseller, and the proprietor of Eilenberger Rare Books in Durham, North Carolina.

davideilenberger.jpg NP: How did you get started in rare books?

DE: I was tending bar during the late 1990's, near the end of my ill-fated graduate school career in European history. Doug O'Dell of Chapel Hill Rare Books was one of my regulars. Knowing of my interest in history and writing, he hired me as a cataloger. It was a wonderful experience. The shop was a treasure trove of manuscripts, photographs, maps, and ephemera as well as rare books, and I was quickly hooked. Doug was a shrewd businessman, but saw our mission as one of scholarship as well as profit. As a result, I had free reign to research the historical context of our most important items, sometimes above and beyond what might have been strictly necessary to sell the materials. For me, the work was not just a job, but a continuation of my education. And, I hope, this intellectual curiosity made for some interesting catalogs and helped sell a few books.
NP: When did you open Eilenberger Rare Books?

DE: Doug O'Dell passed away in 2007 and the shop was closed. Afterward, I cataloged the library of a private collector and worked for a time with Norman Kane at the Americanist. By 2010, I had enough books to set up my own business and 2011 has been my first full year of operation. It is very much a part-time affair. I rely on other income for most of my living and I became a father this past April, so I have only had time to get a few hundred books listed. My hope is to be able to sell enough of my present collection to be able to buy more and better books, and eventually make this my principal occupation once again. So far I have had some success, selling a healthy percentage of the books I have listed. One thing that has helped me is taking advantage of digital photography. Every book I offer is accompanied by at least one image. Even though this is time-consuming, I believe that it not only helps sales, but often saves time in the end. I have had almost no inquiries about the condition of my books prior to purchase and, because folks can see what they are ordering, I have not had a single return.

NP: What does Eilenberger Rare Books specialize in?

DE: Due to my geography and background, the primary focus is on books related to the history of the American South, but I am interested in Americana in general, historical works, travel accounts, natural history, and early American imprints. But I have fairly eclectic tastes and if I like an item, and if the price and condition are right, I am likely to buy it even if it is far outside my niche. Nearly all of my current inventory is books, but I hope to deal in 19th century photographs, manuscripts, and broadsides in the future.

NP: What do you love about the book trade?

The opportunity to learn something new every time I sit down at my desk, often about a completely unexpected subject, and getting paid for it. One thing I particularly enjoy is tracking down the old names written in books. Sometimes the previous owner of a volume is even more interesting than the book itself.

NP: Favorite or most interesting book (or etc) you've handled?

DE: The most exciting item I have seen was the North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights. One of the 14 original manuscript copies engrossed on vellum for each of the states and Congress, it was taken from the state archives by a Union soldier at the end of the Civil War. It remained in private hands until 2005, when the F.B.I. recovered the document in a sting operation. Before the document was returned to the archives, it was in the offices of the U.S. Marshal's Service, who required an appraisal. They asked Doug O'Dell to do the job. I did the background research and went with Doug to examine the document in Raleigh. It was quite a thrill; here was history with a capital "H." Technically this was not part of the trade, as the document was never bought or sold, but the experience was a vivid demonstration of the places the rare book business might take me.

NP: What do you personally collect?

DE: I buy almost nothing for myself besides bibliographies and other books about books. While I am sure I will be sad to part with some of the items on my shelves, I do not have much desire to collect. My craving for books is satisfied by have interesting volumes in my possession for a period of time and moving on to other things once they sell.

NP: You are the first Southern bookseller we've interviewed. Any particular benefits or challenges to selling rare books in North Carolina?

DE: The South has a fascinating and unique history. It has also produced some great books and they are more likely to surface here than elsewhere. However, in terms of the broader range of rare books, my impression is that materials are harder to find. There are fewer leading dealers and auction houses than in other sections. We recently lost another great shop in the South, as Lin and Tucker Respess moved their operation to Massachusetts this past summer. I also lament the absence of regional book fairs, where a small dealer like me might affordably show my wares and meet new clients. Another consideration is the humid climate, which is especially troublesome when books are stored in attics, basements, and other spaces without climate control. This problem is not unique to the South, but it seems worse here, and I have encountered some horrific issues with mold and mildew on materials that would otherwise have been quite attractive. On the bright side, I rarely have to shovel snow from my driveway before I head out to look for books and enjoy mild temperatures for much of the year.

NP: Any thoughts on the future of the book trade?

DE: One prominent issue is the continuing impact of new technologies and the internet. As a researcher I am thrilled by the enormous number of books and other materials being digitized, especially with so much scholarly content freely available. But this obviously has serious implications for the section of the market that is primarily interested in books for information--information that used to be restricted to scarce books, but can now be readily found in other forms, including digital copies and cheap, on-demand reprints. Still I am hopeful for the future of the trade, because people will always be attracted to books as objects of beauty and craftsmanship, and as tangible pieces of our past. Indeed, I think that as more and more new texts are published partly or solely in digital form, and as we get a larger portion of our information from the web, books will be become even more desirable as collectibles.