Mare Booksellers' Richard Erdmann on Zines, Underground Press, and Collecting Samuel Beckett

Richard Erdmann

Richard Erdmann at the 2024 ESA Fair

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Richard Erdmann, proprietor of Mare Booksellers in New Hampshire:

How did you get started in rare books?

I’ve always written poetry, and used to (still do) pursue chapbooks and little magazines by some of my favorite authors in used bookstores. I acquired both reading copies and first editions. While I didn’t consider myself a collector, my biggest goal was to acquire Whoroscope by Samuel Beckett, which was (and remains) out of my price range. I did luck out once and found a signed Samuel Beckett broadside in a drawer at a bookstore. It was priced at $100, which seemed like a fortune to me given that at the time I wrote poetry, rock climbed and worked in a kitchen to make ends meet between those two ventures. I left it in the drawer, and left the store, but luckily my wife, the smart one, strongly encouraged me to go back in and buy it, which I did. So, in an effort to squirrel away enough money to buy Whoroscope, I started to buy used books to resell, mostly on eBay. This was around 2001.

When did you open Mare Booksellers and what do you specialize in?

By 2003 I had given up on Whoroscope. Too much Atari and TV when I was younger ruined my attention span. In actuality, I enjoyed the hunt for books and the extra money and started to consider selling as more of a business than a side hustle. An early score of a first edition of The Maltese Falcon (no dust jacket) for a few dollars at an antique barn cemented that idea. I would say I became firmly established as an official business by 2007. 

A personal affinity for punk music led me to specialize in punk zines from the 1970s to about 1980. I love the art, attitude and outsider status in the earlier zines. Doing my best to mimic actual rare booksellers, I issued my first catalog of punk zines around 2013. Since then, I’ve issued 20 or so catalogs devoted to punk zines while expanding my interest into zines relating to riot grrrl, third wave feminism and the lgbtq+ community. Anything from marginalized voices and communities that push back at mainstream status quo. I also sell underground press publications from the 1960s and ephemera relating to social movements and Black power. That said, if a piece looks interesting and the price is right, I’m that sucker born every minute sort of person. 

What do you love about the book trade?

The constant discovery and learning. Every day I learn something new and enjoy seeing how one item can connect with a larger movement. It’s a great excuse to read about and research subjects I’m interested in or subjects I didn’t know I was interested in. This includes reading underrepresented voices and opinions-especially in zines, where everything written seems to have a personal connection to the creator. I’m happy when I feel like I’m exposing those works and ideas to a potentially larger audience, even if it pushes some buttons on occasion. I once had someone contact me through eBay and ask if I “was some sort of commie?” I replied, “Sure!” While I mostly sell online, I love it when someone gets excited over something I’m offering. My favorite was a sale of a $25 pinback featuring a community activist from Boston. I sold it to a young woman at the ABAA fair in Boston, who was ecstatic to see this obscure little piece. And I almost didn’t bring it because I thought, who’s going to even know who this activist is?

Describe a typical day for you:

I usually check emails 6.30am - 6.45am and pack up any orders to be shipped by 7am. I then try to get out for a long walk with my wife, or some climbing before settling down to do any “serious” work. Most days I begin cataloguing books and zines by 11am, dividing my day into cataloguing general stock, specific items for my mailing list or quotes, and zines for my catalogs. Much of that time is spent researching and going down a variety of rabbit holes, either online or in reference books, until my thoughts crystallize on what makes the piece I’m working on important. By 5pm I’ve about had it with cataloguing for the day, so I’ll spend a little time reevaluating backstock, deciding which items fit in with the direction I see my business heading, and which are better to just move on from. I try to stay away from the computer at night, spending an hour or two reading, usually books on zines, underground publications, social movements, anything related to the material I sell.

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

It's hard to pick just one, so here are my three favorites: a zine from 1938 produced by women incarcerated in a NYC prison, a small archive from a person active in a group similar to the Black Liberation Army. I’m currently very fond of a run of the Revolution I recently purchased, a journal published by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I find Stanton’s writing in the journal to be witty, somewhat biting, and very ahead of its time. Stanton and Anthony were the original riot grrrls, in my opinion.

What do you personally collect?

Work by Samuel Beckett, Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe and other poets. Art books on Cy Twombly. I also collect some mimeo and little magazines, trying to focus on those that have authors I like. Otherwise, there’d be too much overlap with what I sell, and it’d be hard to part with anything.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Rock climb (bouldering specifically). I usually go out two or three days a week, always outside, regardless of the season. My favorite thing to do is explore off trail to find boulders and cliffs overlooked and unclimbed and develop new routes on them. It’s a lot like scouting and selling books: research often turns something overlooked into something interesting. I also love to go for hikes with my wife and kids. We’re lucky that we’re relatively close to the White Mountains although when our children were younger, they disagreed. In the summer our family likes to “collect” swim holes, especially those that involve cliff jumping or rope swings. Being a father is a good built-in excuse to be the one to get to go first off a cliff, “to make sure it’s safe.”

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

Based on my experience, businesswise, over the last several years, I feel pretty good about the rare book trade, both presently and in the future. I think one must be open to new avenues of collecting that are book adjacent, whether zines, posters, handbills, ephemera or something else. When I started to focus on zines ten or so years ago, I had no idea if anyone would want them. Probably not the best way to do things businesswise, but I figured if I liked them, someone else would too. Now it feels like all that sells are zines and similar items, with books lagging behind. I’m sure that has something to do with what I choose to purchase and sell, but it still indicates to me that the world of rare books has expanded, and will continue to, reaching people with a wide range of interests.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogs?

I’m working on my next catalog of early punk zines combined with lgbtq+ zines, due out in July. After that, probably the 2024 Boston ABAA Antiquarian Book Fair. I always struggle with whether I have enough “good” material for a fair or not. While I’m optimistic about the future of the trade for the reasons mentioned above, I encounter a lot of people who like the look of my material but weren’t expecting it at an antiquarian book fair. That doesn’t always result in a sale, but I do think people get a broadened idea of what the world of rare books can look like.