Bright Young Things: Zoe Mindell

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Zoe Mindell of The Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company in Pennsylvania:

zoe mindell photo.JPGNP: What is your role at PRBM?

ZM: Cataloguer, but at shops like ours everyone does a bit of everything -- invoicing, inventory, shelving, answering phones and email, cleaning, arranging gourmet cheese platters, and setting up party tents for summer soirees at the Arsenal.

NP: How did you get started in rare books?

ZM: I grew up surrounded by enticing clutter: my mom's textiles and books, my dad's photographs and sheet music, antiques and tag sale stuff accumulated from weekend rummaging. When I was ten or eleven, I bought my first "old" book  -- one I easily remember because it was in French, and I couldn't read it --  at a small shop in rural Vermont. But the real start of my career was in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College. I had decided to double major in Art History and Italian, and enrolled in an advanced literature survey spring semester of my first year. One bright Monday morning, our class met in the library for a presentation by Martin Antonetti, Smith's Curator of Rare Books, on early editions of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. After class I asked Martin if he hired students, and worked as his assistant until graduation. During my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy, Martin needed eyes at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid to investigate a manuscript for his research, and suddenly I was on a plane to Spain.  More great opportunities followed, thanks again to Smith and Martin's tutelage: a summer fellowship in Italy, an art history prize for research after college, and an internship in the Book Department at Christie's London. I'm proud to say Smith College now has a Book Studies Concentration! When I came home from London, I worked part-time at Bloomsbury Auctions in New York, then landed a young cataloguer's dream job with an antiquarian book dealer and moved from my rent-stabilized apartment on New York's Lower East Side two hours south to Philadelphia.

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

ZM: Last summer when I was planning a visit to Ireland, David Szewczyk suggested I call on someone he knew, the Keeper of Early Printed Books at Trinity College, Dublin. We spent two hours touring Trinity's special collections, then sat at Dr. Charles Benson's desk overlooking the bustling exhibition hall and talked. As our visit drew to a close, Dr. Benson disappeared behind a large case nearby and emerged holding a small stack of books for me to see, including a copy of Arrighi's Coryciana (1524), the book that had been the very focal point of my research for Martin at Smith. And this copy was in a Grolier binding, with De Thou's ownership signature. I'll never forget that book. More recently, I catalogued a Kallierges Pindar (1515), the "editio romana" of Pindar's epinician odes, a.k.a., "a very sexy book for very many reasons". It was the first book printed in Greek at Rome, by a Greek expatriate at the palace press of the Pope's banker.  Weeks later I was doing erotica (cataloguing), and stumbled onto Fanny Hill for the first time. That was a very sexy book for very different reasons.

NP: What do you personally collect?

ZM: Right now, everything affordable that appeals to me, including but not limited to booksellers' catalogs, auction catalogs, exhibition catalogs, books on Italy and travels, books in Italian, old family photographs, romantic postcards, inscribed items, and other antiques that have some sign of a former life (vintage clothes, glassware...). Last summer I stopped by an outdoor flea market in Center City, Philadelphia, and spotted a Sotheby's catalog with a familiar image on the cover: a poster on my apartment wall that my dad had picked up hitchhiking in France in 1970. An unremarkable volume in a dusty pile, that slim catalog suddenly meant everything to me and I bought it immediately. It was serendipity, like so much of the book business.

NP: Do you want to open your own shop someday?  If so, what would you like to specialize in?

ZM: Yes! But I'm very happy where I am right now. David Szewczyk and Cynthy Buffington are incredibly supportive, encouraging me to seek out books, book people, and educational opportunities. Thanks to their generosity, I have been attending a paleography workshop at the University of Pennsylvania; Philobiblon Club meetings; academic lectures; and will have completed three Rare Book School courses by the end of this year. Then, too, there's learning about books and bookseller lore from David every day in the cataloguing office. We specialize in "Early books of Europe & the Americas" and "Other Rarities as Chance May Supply," but my favorites to catalog and read are those that remind me of places and literature I've studied. Someday I'd like to specialize in books and manuscripts from the 15th-18th centuries that shed light on contemporary regional life, like cookbooks, day books, local histories, manuals, and small town presses. For now, I'm more than satisfied with the variety I see at PRB&M, and grateful to be working for a company that cares so much about books and "finding good homes" for them.

NP: Thoughts on the future of the book trade?

ZM: The ways in which we buy, sell, and read books are changing, but I'm not threatened by technology per se. Digital "books," while useful and practical as data repositories, can't compare with the sensual experience of reading as we've known it for centuries. It's far less exciting to inherit a digital book, or see an image of an early ownership inscription, or cradle your Kindle fireside. And then there's the matter of preservation. We have a responsibility to safeguard books like we do art. You wouldn't just junk everything in the Louvre because you are able find images -- even very high quality images -- on the museum website, would you? As technology advances, I can only imagine and hope that books will become more valuable as vestiges of human experience, and pleasing tactile objects. That said, the future of the trade depends on collectors as much as booksellers, and our generation is already very much online. Our task now is to anticipate and prepare. Did I mention PRBM has a great website?