Bright Young Booksellers: Colleen Barrett

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Colleen Barrett of Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company.


Colleen Barrett PRBM.jpgHow did you get started in rare books?


When asked what I want to be when I grow up, my standard answer has always been “happy.” As a junior at Purdue University, I realized that while I really enjoyed being an English major I still had no idea what I wanted to do professionally. Later that semester, my book history class took a field trip to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. While handling their Shakespeare first folio, it dawned on me that I could actually get paid to work with this sort of stuff, so I promptly decided to become a rare book librarian. Following my MLS at Indiana, I catalogued the Clara Peck collection at Transylvania University before Cynthy and David asked if I would like to join PRB&M. My academic advisor Joel Silver once told me you don’t know anything before you’ve handled 3000 books, so I decided joining a firm that specializes in early books of Europe and the Americas was a great way to quickly handle and learn about a massive variety of texts, even if it wasn’t a traditional library setting.

What is your role at PRBM?

I am one of three cataloguers on staff. Since we’re a relatively small company, this means I am involved in most aspects of the business, from helping with appraisal prep work to buying flowers for our open houses, in addition to actually cataloging things for sale.

What do you love about the book trade?

For me, there’s an inherent romance in being able to handle things *first.* When I worked as a library cataloger I was lucky enough to be one of the first few people to handle a book (following acquisition of course), but here I get to start at almost if not the very beginning of the process.


Furthermore I am continually impressed by the friendliness and passion of other booksellers. I have yet to meet someone who is not excited by what he, she, or they is doing, which is not something I can say for most professions.


Being allowed to drink coffee with the books or take them home occasionally also rocks.  

Describe a typical day for you:

While no day here is typical, mine usually starts with our shared email, where I might find an order to process, inquiry for photographs of a specific book, or even questions about shipment methods to other countries. Once these tasks are finished I often spend the rest of my time cataloging new material for sale, answering phone inquiries, working on various collection maintenance projects, or playing with our shopcat Blake.

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

Anything Audubon. There’s something so fascinating about the intersection of research, artwork, and pure joy of discovery represented in his works, and every time I look at them I notice something new to love. I’m fortunate enough to have worked with his materials at all of my workplaces in various ways, and even catalogued some of his items at both Transy and PRB&M. We currently have a copy of the third octavo edition at the shop, so I feel quite fortunate to be able to pick one up to look through every now and again during breaks.

What do you personally collect?

I mostly collect books about books with a specific focus on bookseller/collector/librarian memoirs, but I also own numerous contemporary sci-fi fantasy of the steampunk, time travel, or alternate city variety and nicer gift editions of Tolkien and Gaiman’s works. I always plan to (eventually) read whatever I buy, so I tend to think of my purchases as more of a research collection than a pristine gathering of important works.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Cook! Since I subscribed to a CSA vegetable share this summer, I have spent most evenings trying out new recipes for things like bottle gourd curry or bitter melon potatoes. Otherwise I am a fan of pretending to reduce my TBR pile, going to concerts, and celebrating random holidays -- my two current favorites being IPA Day and Independent Bookstore Day. I also really enjoy attending meetings of the Philobiblon Club (the book collecting club here in Philadelphia).

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

It really is an exciting time to be here! There will always be the need for independent, intelligent, and creative people to make a living, and I cannot think of another profession better suited to this than antiquarian bookselling. I have no doubt the trade will continue to grow and flourish in interesting and unexpected ways. It’s such a treat to see so many inventive booksellers coming up with new collecting areas and ways to think about traditional collecting fields these past few years.  

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

We’ll be at the California Book Fair in February, and we’re constantly updating the newest arrivals section of our website, which can be found here.





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