Prized Book Collections — on a Budget

Courtesy of Anke Timmermann

Capital Letters (1983) by the poet Gavin Ewart.

My favorite part of being a student in Heidelberg twenty years ago was the exploration of local second-hand and rare bookshops. I would dot into their basements on my way home from lectures, and in spite of my modest budget always emerge with something interesting, entertaining, or beautiful to add to my shelves, to join books rescued from family attics and flea markets. My partner and fellow-antiquarian bookseller Mark James can also still remember the thrill of starting his book collection while working at a bookshop in Lincoln during school holidays and taking home his pay ‘in kind’ as bags full of books. Like Mark, I would never have considered myself a rare book collector, but both of our youthful libraries gradually grew into unique and personal collections that would now be eligible for book collecting competitions, such as the Anthony Davis, Rose, or David Murray book collecting prizes in the UK, or one of the numerous prizes in the U.S.

The Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize at the University of London seeks submissions of at least eight titles from students at London-based universities. The call for submissions emphasizes that “the intention is to encourage collecting and we expect that applicants” collections will be embryonic, so their size, age and value are irrelevant. What is much more important is the enthusiasm and commitment of the collector, the interest of the theme and the vision of how the collection will be developed.” In the U.S., the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize is awarded to “an outstanding book collection conceived and built by a young woman,” encouraging “aspiring collectors to pay attention to the books that fascinate them, even if they’re not yet sure why. What do you see that others don’t? If you have a theory about the stories your collection might tell, and the curiosity to find out if you’re right, you’re a real collector in the making."

Courtesy of Anke Timmermann

Kenneth Hopkins’ Miscellany Poems (1946) inscribed by the author.

One often hears the complaint that book collecting has a certain price of admission, and it can certainly be easier to build a collection if funds are readily available – but necessity is often the parent of ingenuity! To demonstrate that the formation of a rare book collection on a budget is not only still possible but also interesting and fun, I recently explored London’s famous Charing Cross Road – long a destination for book lovers and collectors – with a £5 note in hand (about $6). The goal of my ‘£5 challenge’ was to spend no more than that sum on rare and interesting pieces that could be the starting point of a prize-worthy collection. My first expedition to Any Amount of Books was even more successful than anticipated: after carefully sifting through the basement shelves, I found a number of candidates.

The first, a slim volume titled Capital Letters by the poet Gavin Ewart (1916-1995), was a poetic correspondence between ‘Flétrie’ and ‘Félicité’ – a wonderful example of his “light- hearted verse that was known for its irreverence, sexual content, and effortless technical skill” (Poetry Foundation). It was published by John Fuller’s Sycamore Press in Oxford in 1983. The second find, a copy of Kenneth Hopkins’ Miscellany Poems (1946) inscribed by the author, was privately printed by Hopkins’ own Grasshopper Press in London, which he had established because, as he explained in his autobiography The Corruption of a Poet (1956), “nobody else would publish my poems.” Both volumes would make good additions to a collection of British post-war poetry. My third discovery was an English language, Eastern German travel guide to East Berlin from 1988, the year before the Berlin wall would come down, which was possibly one of the last pieces of propaganda for visitors produced during the Cold War. Advertising East Berlin as a tourist attraction, this volume is colorfully illustrated with photographs of happy tourists and workers enjoying verdant parks and patriotic parades. These three titles cost £5 in total – the price of two coffees.

While some may feel that the disappearance of high street bookshops may make it harder to find such bargains, there has been a corresponding boom in the number of dealers trading online that offers different routes of exploration. Moreover, in order to adapt to the social distancing and self-quarantine measures of recent weeks, many antiquarian booksellers in the UK and internationally are expanding their online presence and welcome enquiries, desiderata, and conversations via email or phone. In this regard, there has never been a better time to intensify one’s engagement with rare books, to garner expert advice on building a collection, and to support antiquarian bookshops.

Book collecting prizes in the UK with upcoming submission dates:

Other UK book collecting prizes:

A comprehensive list of book collecting prizes in the UK and the USA has been put together by The Book Collector.

--Anke Timmermann is a historian, writer, and antiquarian bookseller at Type & Forme, and a member of the Rose Book Collecting Prize committee. She was featured in our Bright Young Booksellers series in 2019.