Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Tom Kiser, proprietor of Vivarium Books in Saint Paul, Minnesota:
How did you get started in rare books?
I was 15 and a freshman in high school when I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, who incidentally died this year. In fact, the English translation appeared the year I was born. On Nicollet Island in downtown Minneapolis, teachers at my Lasallian high school were introducing me to history, philosophy and theology, strange interests for a 15 year old but it probably kept me out of trouble. I can’t really explain but often attempt to try: Eco was a rare book collector, postmodernist and medievalist - a combination that I find original and interesting - and viewed books I think primarily as things that aid in the investigation of reality while at the same time sort of take on a life of their own. I like to interpret this life as residing in the mind, where they speak and interact with other books through the process of cognition. Like a scientist, I view the past as a guide in peeling back the layers of reality and books to me are primarily explorative aids with intrinsic appeal. When I step into the right library, it is as it was when Br. William of Baskerville and his novice Adso discovered the book labyrinth in the fictional Aedificium, or when Samwell Tarly is granted access to the maester’s library in Game of Thones. I get the feeling that it contains the answers, hidden away, that I need. Eco’s inspiration for this 14th century library was in fact the Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, a place I had a chance to visit years later while on a book buying trip. A search for a rare book is similar to a search for answers as we work our way through life from birth to death. Possessing a book is like possessing the knowledge it contains, and sometimes new knowledge is created between two or more books.
Completely unconscious of this, I did a BA-History in 2006 at a Benedictine university that is adjacent to a large monastic enclosure in a wooded area of central Minnesota. I chose this place in part because underground the university stores the world’s largest repository of medieval manuscript images and also contains a world-class rare book collection. I interned there vis-à-vis a Greco-Roman study abroad program where I worked my interest in things medieval, monastic and their intersection with books. My big break came when I got a job as a cataloger and later a buyer for the world’s largest secondhand theological bookseller with a reputation for dealing in medieval studies. Back then, it was set in a beautiful old church in a river town nearby where I grew up. I can easily recall shivering in the dim lighting after closing, in the dark, wood creaking under my feet, smelling nearby bon fires, absorbing it all night after night. It was then that I noticed a knack for memorizing titles and authors and bindings. While I was working through a graduate degree in library science, I had exposure to some aspects of the trade (including rare books and rarer people), exposure I still use to provide myself with food, shelter, and a decent argument for my own existence.
When did you open Vivarium and what do you specialize in?
That’s a really pertinent question given where I am in the evolution of Vivarium. As an upstart, I used my background from school and work in a theological bookstore. It allowed me to deal with some authority in topics like church history, scholastic philosophy, patristics, and related fields like archaeology. My concentration has always been religious thought from the ancient to medieval period in academic, collectible and rare form, a broad niche closely related to my primary interest of monasticism and its role in the propagation of learning through the development of the codex. This gave my business a theme to draw inspiration from, allowed me to work with what I love, and, thanks to experience, a reliable financial situation was produced. Now I am concerned with expansion.
I opened my online-only shop in 2010 as an already eight-year veteran of poverty. I had a box of books from a friend (no joke) who normally steers people away from bookselling, no savings, a small family loan (too small) that funded my first buying trip to French Canada, and too much college debt, but I did have some relevant experience, connections, institutional access and a working business plan that only needed to be re-tooled about twenty times (I’m probably retooling it right now). This lifted me out of poverty and into the middle class during the recession, although not nearly as quickly as I would have liked. It was worth it because I want to make a living leaving my mark on the world doing something I love. This also allows me to feel like I am discovering my limits and potential, which is priceless. Now that it’s getting somewhere, I’m looking at my next goal of diversifying outside of my niche. It helps that I value learning. I’ll rely on that and the valuable expertise of trusted people when expanding into the unknown, sort of the way explorers used to use local guides. I’ll never stop learning and exploring. Long term (subject to life’s twists and turns) I want to create a bookstore that is a refuge for seekers like myself, really all lovers of learning, on a scenic property that is open by appointment. In the spirit of the middle ages, I want to preserve and disseminate all sacred and natural arts and sciences while staying connected to my core competency. People can help simply by doing business with me, but especially by referrals to individuals or institutions looking to downsize or expand their book collections.
The original Vivarium was a Roman villa turned monastery in the dark ages. There, monks consolidated and copied endangered books from around the dying Roman Empire as it was being subjected to repeated invasions. In this way they left their small mark on the course of humanity. Later monks became copyists on a massive scale, playing the important social role of preserving and disseminating knowledge. They helped to stabilize the intellectual crisis caused by the invasions and brought light to darkness. Once again, the liberal arts that were a hallmark of ancient learning were taught to groups, only this time in monastic schools at places like Fulda, Bobbio and Corbie. Were it not for these events, ancient thought may not have survived the turbulent Middle Ages, allowing it to develop into our modern reality. I think that concept of preservation on its head is in conformity with the ethos of booksellers today. So here I am. I strive to be conscientious and very careful with the patrimony associated with books I source from institutions and private individuals. Occasionally I save books and entire collections (once an ethnic heritage situation) from peril. Right now I am relocating a small library to the Italian town of Norcia, where it will be used in an institute that works on dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I only wish I could be there for it all.
What do you love about the book trade?
I like that it exists. I like that it allows me to share my interests with the world. I am glad to be a part of a trade that has survived, and even thrived in some places despite Amazon and its warehouses, print-on-demand, mass digitization and the various alliances of these forces. I like that it’s survived itself, to be honest, with an enormous amount of credit due to organizations like the ABAA, ILAB, IOBA, and inclusive, non-competitive learning environments like CABS, YABS, and Rare Book School that have all been around for years. Interestingly, I’ve noticed supply and demand being generated by skilled dealers and skilled collectors coming together. I also like small business and think it has an important role to play in the economy.
Describe a typical day for you:
I need to be in more than one place at a given time. Shipping and cataloging are supposed to be the most regular, but I’m often forced to hold off on cataloging and then binge on it. I’m involved in 4-5 book buying projects remotely at any given time. Now that the foundational 10,000 books have been sourced, bought, catalogued and mostly paid for I am finding time for development. I hang out at my local coffee shop and do social media, work on catalogues, reach out to other booksellers, watch auctions, look for ways to expand my selection, dwell on cataloging rare books, and lately work on Vivarium’s non-existing website. I have found ways to not have to do all of this myself but in reality I’m always behind. I do spend time daydreaming about building a space for my store and how my books would be arranged. I almost think it would be easier designing and building than searching for the perfect pre-existing space.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?
Easy. I held a stunning illuminated medieval manuscript in folio, MS Bergendal 1, by Bernardo Gui (the Dominican Inquisitor embellished in Eco’s The Name of the Rose) located at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies at Toronto. This copy was presented by Gui himself to his ally Pope John XXII in the late 1320s. The primary illumination on the first leaf depicts Gui handing the book to the pope who at that time was in Avignon. As far as commercial handling, it would be something I just acquired: the best book on medieval Christian ritual, the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum written by Durandus, written before 1286. It is a Giunta imprint from 1551 which belonged to a famous 20th century German scholar of liturgy. I have the book this liturgist wrote in my personal library so that provenance is significant to me. There are also collections. Earlier this year Vivarium handled a gorgeous leather collection of Migne’s Patrologia Latina and Graeca numbering almost 400 volumes. This was sourced in Quebec. Earlier I mentioned the collection headed for Norcia.
What do you personally collect?
Monasticism, bibliography/history of the book, medieval studies (philosophy, science, theology etc.), Aristotle, liturgical books, Crusades, Middle East, Byzantium, Eastern Christianity (lately Syriac), Roman Catholicism, paganism, librariana, medieval manuscript facsimiles, -- sort of a mirror image of my store but not nearly as scholarly. Most of it was formed with credit I had from my previous employer. If I were to pick a serious area to move forward with it would be monasticism, but I’ve been selling what I find.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Nature, swimming, music, learning (lately astronomy), photography, road trips, coffee shops, craft beer (IPA), snowboarding, concerts, bonfires, and thinking. I like the idea of writing (ha).
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
On the trade: I am impressed with the ABAA and ILAB and hope to apply when I’m ready. CABS was great. I have to give an internet high-five to the IOBA for connecting me with a lot of relevant information that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Many of those members are all over this trade and work very hard.
On books: I think books are superior to digital in almost every way and I say that as a digital native. I totally understand not everybody thinks that and particular circumstances vary, but it’s indisputable that in digital times print can feel luxurious. As for me, I have grown as a person from good libraries and bookstores as cultural centers in a way that I am not able to do digitally. There is something about being able to physically maneuver about a library or collection with the ability to see and touch everything that I hope we don’t lose sight of. These experiences add zest to my life and improve me as an individual. Also there is collecting. For those who are into it, books provide the insight we need about topics we care deeply about while simultaneously they act to express who we are and what is important to us. When I visit someone’s home or office, the first thing I do is look at the bookshelf to see if I can gain an impression of what they like. Bonus points are always allotted for nice editions, signed copies, etc. If we need to express ourselves with material possessions, I think books are a very good option.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
I recently put out a comprehensive catalogue I personally liked entitled Byzantine Art: Origins to Aftermath. It can be found here. I am now putting one together on late medieval and Renaissance art, and I wholeheartedly intend to do my first rare and antiquarian after that, being hyper-aware of what they say about good intentions. In the meantime I encourage people to follow Vivarium Books on Facebook. As far as fairs, I haven’t made it out yet because my goals have been elsewhere, but recently I did make a return to the International Medieval Congress (there is a book fair attached) where I found new friends, rekindled old relationships, met in person with individuals who I have helped remotely, and in general just scoped out the scene. It was fun to attend to attend as a drifter with no work to do and to write off all the expenses while supporting a great organization. I hope to do recon at other events and look forward to meeting other booksellers.