Bright Young Booksellers: Vanessa Brown and Jason Dickson

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Vanessa Brown and Jason Dickson, proprietors of Brown & Dickson in London, Ontario:

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How did you both get started in rare books?

Vanessa: I started working at an ILAB shop during my undergrad and that’s where I was introduced to bookselling, conservation and rare books in a professional capacity, but the itch really got under my skin when I started collecting L. M. Montgomery as a teenager. I remember being dumbfounded by a signed copy of Pat of Silver Bush, around the same time I met Jason actually. We met each other through working on a regional poetry anthology, and so words and books have always been a part of our relationship. I collected his zine, Paradigm. I guess that was why he helped me get a job at that ILAB shop--or maybe he just thought I was cute. I hope it’s because he thought I was cute.

Jason: A good friend opened a shop when I was still in high school. I got to help open it and loved the experience completely. I was eighteen and, mainly growing up in a small town, to come to London, Ontario--a big city--and work in a cool downtown bookshop was a dream come true. Then I worked with Vanessa for an association dealer for nearly 10 years, and we both cut our teeth there. I grew up in that shop. We loved working. We loved the culture. It all just came into place, and I’ve never left the business.

When did you open Brown & Dickson and what do you specialize in?

Vanessa: Our official launch was January 1, 2015 but we’ve been kind of open since the beginning of November. People seem a little confused by what we call a “semi-retail” environment, but we really like having a half-shop/half-office hybrid. We specialize in Canada and her culture. While we still love traditional Canadiana, we are focusing more on 20th century iconography, pop culture and the development of our national identity.

Jason: I love 20th century Canada. It is something that most folks our age up here adore but don’t take seriously because it isn’t a serious focus for collectors really and, well, we’re Canadian. We don’t take anything we do seriously. But Canada is one of those countries that, because of its relative similarity to the US, and its proximity to the big USofA, it’s culture has crept into much of mainstream 20th Century identity. Ivan Reitman. You Can’t Do that on Television. The Guess Who. We are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. So to come into this and have all of the material new and unprocessed, unappraised mostly, well...Vanessa and I are very excited to be a part of that, bringing 20th Century Canada into the trade, selling it into existence.

What are your roles?  How do you divide your labor?

Vanessa: We’ve worked together for so many years, and have been friends since high school. Now we’re married. It’s hard to describe. We finish each other’s sentences and cover for each other, pick up each other’s slack. It’s automatic. I suppose Jason is better at administration, numbers. He’s more technical with cataloguing. I’m captivated by social media and customer relationships. But we are both equally obsessed with local history and regionalism.

Jason: Vanessa and I are both writers. She writes in one awesome draft that she then chips away, works, coerces, and refines it to form a final manuscript. I collect bits and pieces and break them and stitch them and Frankenstein it into a final monsterpiece. This is how we are at work too. Vanessa is mainly a big picture person. I’m mainly a “how are we going to this, actually” person. But we are both entrepreneurs and finicky managers. Technically, however, we differ greatly. So when we dream together -- dream about what we plan to do and where we plan to go -- it is sparing no expense, but how we actually create it together is very complicated and nuanced. There’s a lovely balance. We’ve honed this over years of working together, and it is magic.

What do you both love about the book trade?

Vanessa: For me, the first thing is the relationships. I find that I get along with book people. I love the eccentricities of collectors and sellers. Just as important, in fact, more important to me, is the hunt. The treasure hunt, the finds, the discoveries. Your network is what makes those happen, so the two things work together. Finding a one-of-a-kind significant item can energize me for months.

Jason: I have clarity of purpose bookselling. I get it, I can do it well, and the struggle means something to me. I don’t find that in other work, honestly. The struggle of other jobs is deeply irritating and soul-crushing. So to come into the shop each day and see the challenge in front of me...that is galvanizing and inspiring. I can live with that, and grow.

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

Vanessa: I should say the Nuremberg Chronicle, but no. It has to be the 13 page manuscript of the lost, unpublished Mammoth Cave article by L. M. Montgomery. She referred to it in her journals, but no one had ever found it. The owner, who didn’t quite know what she had, inquired with an academic colleague of mine about selling it. He sent her to me. That was a landmark moment for me as a seller. The manuscript is at the University of Prince Edward Island L. M. Montgomery Institute now, where it should be. I also had the privilege to assist in appraising the Montgomery suicide note at the University of Guelph, and that appraisal led to another important finding about her death.

Jason: A complete run of Artscanada. I took a very long time with that. It excited me. Also large chunks from James Reaney [Canadian writer] and Greg Curnoe’s [Canadian artist] libraries. Basically any large collection of arts ephemera from early to mid-century Canada that I’ve had the opportunity to catalogue or even see has made my pulse race. Also I’ve handled some rare photographs of London, Ontario that I really dorked out on seeing things like, “Oh THAT’S what that building was back then.” This sort of thing excites me. Weird self published books of poetry and self-produced records excite me too and I’ve had the pleasure of handling many of those.

What do you both personally collect?

Vanessa: Now that I’m selling, I’m not collecting anymore. It’s the same principal as being a drug dealer. You can’t smoke what you sell. Jason’s a bit more footloose and fancy free than I am. He likes to dance with the devil.

Jason: British and American ghost stories. I also have a collection of wholly inconsequential scraps relating to my life.

Vanessa, I understand you are also something of an L. M. Montgomery expert.  Could you elaborate on that?

Vanessa: I think I have done that already, but since you ask...I think there is a moment where you can turn a hobby into something you take seriously. It’s a conscious decision, and one that I also made as a writer. It’s all well and good to dabble in something you enjoy, but there’s a level of work that’s involved in actual research that exhausts you unless you are truly committed. You hear about that in the trade all the time, people who like books and enjoy reading and tell themselves it would be pretty neat to run a bookstore someday. You can’t run a business that way, and you can’t contribute to your culture in a meaningful way unless you have the determination to see something through. I believe that bookselling is an essential role in the world of academia, archives and cultural preservation. So, taking part in the Montgomery scholarship community is just part of the same thing. These words, these pieces of ephemera, the archives, the cataloguing numbers and the private collections, these are all part of transmitting our past into the future. Montgomery’s work is a cornerstone of Canadian literature, and since I’m a Canadian writer and bookseller, knowing about her makes sense to me.

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

Vanessa: The book trade in Canada is massively different from the United States. There are no association book dealers other than Jason and I in Canada under the age of fifty. We are doing things in another way than the generation before us. What I know for sure is that the market is shifting. Up north, we need to focus on fostering the trade. There are lots of collectors, but not a lot of sellers.

Jason: The trade will be fine. Those who adapt will survive. Books are simply too fascinating. And they will always have value. And the sellers who discover new markets or embrace and learn the idiosyncrasies and progressive ways of selling will do just fine. I think bookdealers are being forced to come out from behind the myth of the dusty grump and be visible and accountable. That is not a bad thing. In fact what was once mysterious is now common, and dealers are having to be more creative in finding the mysterious -- I should say romantic -- in books once more. This is work, but good work. And good things will come of it.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

Vanessa: We hope to put out our first catalogue by spring. It’s going to be epic.

Jason: What she said.

(Note from Fine Books & Collections: There are several other association book dealers in Canada who are under 50 years old, including the proprietors of Bison Books, Patrick McGarhern, and Spafford Books).


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