Bright Young Things: Alex Obercian

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Alex Obercian of James Cummins Bookseller in New York City.  

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NP: How did you get started in rare books?

AO: To pay the rent, I took a job in the rare book department at the Strand in New York. I had been an electrician and had some plan to study architecture. I quickly changed course. The Strand was a wonderful place to learn about the trade - every day I was faced with an onslaught of books to catalogue and price. About this time, I had a friend who worked for a big shot bookman, and it was through this dealer’s catalogues that I first learned something of what was possible at the upper end of the trade. It was time to move on, so I petitioned Jim Cummins (also a big shot) for a job, and he found some room for me.  

NP: What is your role at James Cummins?

AO: I share the basic bookselling duties of buying, cataloging, pricing, and selling with the other fellows in the shop - Tim Johns, Henry Wessells, and Jim himself. We all pitch in and pack books and mind the shop, as well. I also work with Jim’s son, James, on website design and other projects peripheral to the books themselves. As for the books, I tend to handle the fine bindings, photography, and gastronomy, but I’m in no way limited to those areas. Much of my time is taken up with the production of print catalogues. We put out about 6 full-color, fully-illustrated catalogues a year, and I do all the photography and layout and design. The catalogues look sharp and they sell books - I think of them as my particular contribution to James Cummins Bookseller.

NP: What do you love about the book trade?

AO: Well the easy answer is, I love the books, and I love, or at least like, the people who sell them. I imagine every community bound by a trade learns to muster a bit of congratulatory self-love for its members. But I doubt that people who sell tractor parts feel the same way about what they’re pushing.    

NP: Favorite rare book that you’ve handled?

AO: This is a fairly well-known book that we were fortunate to own for a time -- a copy of a 17th century ferrier manual, The Complete Horse-Man, owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne since a child and later presented to Herman Melville as a birthday present. Hawthorne met Melville on the road in Massachusetts one summer day in 1851 (the year Melville was writing Moby-Dick) and the two went back to Hawthorne’s farm to spend the night smoking cigars and talking. They exchanged books that evening -- Hawthorne must have thought a book on the care of horses would be useful to Melville on his farm. The dedication leaf contains both authors’ signatures, probably the only extant piece of paper so distinguished. 

NP: What do you personally collect?

AO: Cocktail manuals, books and photographs on butchery and meat, wanted posters and rap sheets with real photographs, Agnes Repplier first editions, Alvin Lustig dust-jackets. This list sounds willfully eclectic, but everything on it is rooted in some personal interest. 

NP: Thoughts on the future of the rare book trade?

AO: I’m optimistic that there will be enough new collectors in the coming decades to sustain the trade. So what if everyone is reading Dan Brown on a Kindle? Rare books have never had mass appeal. A lot of the gripes I hear are variations on the “good-old-days” argument --- that there was a lost golden age of extraordinary books and easy money. I see plenty of younger people interested in rare books, printing, typography, binding, book arts, and so on. It only takes a relatively small number of intelligent, modestly wealthy individuals who would rather develop a taste for rare books than waste their time speculating on contemporary art for the trade to continue to thrive. That said, there has been a definite shift in the trade towards the high-end and the unique object. Internet listing sites have created transparency in the market and the designation of rarity, and have made it harder for the dealer of general used stock to survive. Something Bill Reese said in a talk at the Grolier Club a few years ago has stuck with me -- when he puts a book online, he wants it to be “the best copy, the only copy, or the cheapest copy.” When a collector is faced with 20 mediocre copies of the same book online, what’s the rush in buying one today? But a copy of a book given by Hawthorne to Melville? Go find me another one. 

NP: Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

AO: In April we’ll be at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, which is the highlight of the bookselling season. I’m currently working on a catalogue of new arrivals and a catalogue of sporting books for the the spring. They’ll be available to all on our website.
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