Considering the Nobel Bump

KazuoIshiguro_TheRemainsOfTheDay.jpgWhen I moved to London a year and a half ago, I determined that I would enjoy the novelty of being able to bet on the Nobel Prize for Literature. It has always been one of my favorite times on the literary calendar -- the season is changing to autumn, and there is a fresh bite to the air, and it feels hopeful that people are betting on literature and watching it as if it were a sporting event. It seems so unlikely to me, as an American, that there is any kind of way to bet on books besides to take a risk and buy and read them.

                                                                                                                                                                            So last year I ran two miles in the rain after dropping off my son at nursery to a Ladbrokes betting site and risked everything on the odds-on favorite, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I would have bet on several more people, but there was trouble processing my payment and the betting closed. I lost; Bob Dylan won. I didn’t feel bad about spending money on a form of frivolity even after losing, I continued to feel a form of glee that such a thing could be done. I also had heard Dylan was a contender for years, and had even considered him in my early choices. 

                                                                                                                                                                             I had very little time this week to consider my betting, and like last year I barely made it to the betting parlour on time after bringing my son to school. I bet a spread of authors after reading a few predictions and decided that Margaret Atwood would be my favorite, followed by Thiong’o again, Korean poet Ko Un, and Spain’s Javier Marias. I also thought about Kazuo Ishiguro, but he hadn’t been given a chance in the press, and he seemed too young to me to be a likely contender. Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers. Remains of the Day is one of my favorite contemporary novels, it also happens to have been inspired by a song by Tom Waits, one of my favorite singers. And though I lost today, I was thrilled for the news. 

                                                                                                                                                                              I have worked at several bookstores over the years, and watched with fascination what happens when an author dies, or an author wins a major award. There is an immediate interest and refocusing on the writer’s work and a sales bump. And now that I am a new to the trade as a rare book dealer, I wonder how the Nobel impacts sales of first editions. I have most of Ishiguro’s firsts, plucked over the years from used bookstores, and I know there is a healthy price at book fairs put on firsts of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go -- he is already popularly collected. It may seem cynical to care about the price of modern first editions, but I see it as establishing and investing in the idea of an author’s having value in a world that makes very little room for the importance of writing. Today, signed first editions available online of Remains of the Day range from $200-600. I suspect by the end of the week that range will have doubled, and copies will be scarce for a while.


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Images: (Top) Remains of the Day first edition via Wikipedia; (Bottom) Kazuo Ishiguro and A.N. Devers at a book signing. Courtesy of A.N. Devers.

On August 10, 1928, H. K. Beazley wrote a check to author D. H. Lawrence for a total of £5.2.0 (five pounds and two shillings). According to Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, the check “was used to purchase three copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” At the time, two booksellers, Richard Aldington and S.S. Kotelinansky, were “taking care” of the “British stash” of the recently published novel, which had been spurned by UK booksellers due to the book’s erotic content. In order to get a copy, it seems a reader would have to send an order to its publisher, Pino Orioli in Florence, who would forward the check to Lawrence in Switzerland, who would then direct one of the two booksellers to actually dispatch the order. On August 17, 1928, Lawrence asked Aldington to post three copies to H. K. Beazley, 19 Churton St., Victoria S.W. (Beazley must have been quite the reader or collector; he regularly listed his “Books Wanted” in the Bookseller and the Publishers’ Circular in the early twentieth century.) Some confusion ensued about the check--how could it not?--but Lawrence did sign it, and it was paid into his account on August 21. We assume Beazley got his books.

223038.jpgA pretty piece of ephemera with Lawrence’s signature and some interesting publishing history too, the check heads to auction on October 11, estimated at £800-1,200 ($1,060-$1,325).

Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull

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.

Sylvia Plath Symposium at Grolier Club

Letters_of_Sylvia_Plath_Harpers_2017.JPGOn October 12 the Grolier Club in Manhattan will host a symposium dedicated to Sylvia Plath. Moderated by collector Judith Raymo, the panel will consist of various Plath experts: Smith College Associate Director of Special Collections Karen V. Kukil; The Letters of Sylvia Plath co-editor Peter K. Steinberg; and CUNY Graduate Center Fellow Heather Clark, who will discuss, in part, the joys and challenges of editing Sylvia Plath’s letters. The two-hour talk coincides with the Grolier Club’s “‘This is the light of the mind’: Selections from the Sylvia Plath collection of Judith Raymo” exhibition currently on display through November 4.

A catalogue of the Raymo collection, published by Oak Knoll, will also be available for purchase. The current issue of Fine Books includes a feature on Plath by Steinberg.

The event is free, but reservations are requested. Non-members may RSVP to Maev Brennan at (212) 838-6690 or

                                                                                                                                                                                           Image courtesy of HarperCollins

The Woodcuts of Viva Talbot

One of my first purchases as a new rare book dealer was a curious portfolio of 15 woodcuts entitled Steel Making: Woodcuts by Viva Talbot, a woman I had never heard of. I bought it for several hundred British pounds, and rather surprisingly, it became one of my first sales at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair two weeks ago. I sold it for what I now realize is a reasonable sum to a research library at a university in the United States with a deep interest in the history of steel making.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   The portfolio contained 15 woodcut prints of scenes depicting the iron mining, smelting, and extraction processes. Talbot was the daughter of Benjamin Talbot, managing director of both the Cargo Fleet Iron Company and the South Durham Steel and Iron Company. She made the prints in the 1930s as an untrained but clearly talented artist who had special access to her father’s industry.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  Viva_Talbot.jpgA quick Internet search proved that Viva Talbot was a forgotten and underacknowledged artist until recently, when Dr. Joan Heggie rediscovered her in 2006 and determined to do everything she could to bring her work to light. As a project manager for the British Steel Archive Project, Dr. Heggie launched an exhibition at the Dorman Musuem in Middlesborough in 2010.

                                                                                                                                                                                   The edition of prints I purchased was black and white and unsigned except for a printed signature, and folded in a sheet of paper with a string. It was a simple and unassuming package containing incredible work by a woman who had little-to-no acknowledgement for her documentary art until recently. As a bookseller interested in bringing women’s work to light, it was validation of exactly why I have entered the trade. Not all books or work I sell will end up in a university, but when they do, it feels less like a business transaction and more like a preservation of history.

                                                                                                                                                                                               Image of Viva Talbot via Wikimedia

Surveyor DVD front cover 300.jpgThis is undoubtedly the year of Thoreau, and to that end, filmmaker Huey Coleman has released Surveyor of the Soul, a 114-minute documentary about the Walden author. Thirteen years in the making, Huey amassed dozens of interviews with scholars, activists, students, and tourists, all passionate to discuss “Thoreau, his legacy, and the impact his writings have on our time.” Featured therein are authors Laura Dassow Walls, Bill McKibben, Howard Zinn, Robert Sullivan, Megan Marshall, and many more. Huey has made a number of films on art and nature, including another Thoreau-themed documentary, Wilderness and Spirit: A Mountain Called Katahdin.

Surveyor of the Soul premiered at the Maine International Film Festival this past July, just days after the official bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, and it has since been screened at the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering and the Morgan Library, among other venues. Upcoming screenings include:

-October 11 at 7:00 p.m., IMRC Center, Room 104, University of Maine, Orono, ME
-October 16 at 5:30 p.m, University of New England, Biddeford, ME
-October 22 at 2:00 p.m., 51 Walden Theater, Concord, MA, sponsored by Concord Museum
-October 26 at 7:00 p.m., Talbot Hall, Luther Bonney Hall, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME
-November 2, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, Idaho

The DVD is available for $29.95 on the Maine-based filmmaker’s website. Check out the trailer embedded below.

Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul, TRAILER (3 minutes), A Film by Huey, 2017, from Films by Huey on Vimeo.

Image courtesy of Films By Huey


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Paris remains a beacon of culture and sophistication and a week spent promenading along the city’s quais and quaint streets was balm for the soul. Among the many familiar sights were the bouquinistes, those riverside booksellers whose forest green stalls have been a fixture by the Seine since at least the 18th century. The tradition of traveling bookselling in Paris goes back even further; known as “libraries forain,” wandering booksellers plied their trade as early as the 1550s when they were accused of distributing Protestant propaganda during the Wars of Religion. Open-air bookstalls were banned in 1649, and meandering booksellers were chased out of the city by Louis V during the 1720s. The ill-fated Louis XVI tolerated their return in the 1750s, and by the time Napoleon I took power, the bouquinistes had reestablished their territory along the riverbank, where they’ve remained a fixture ever since.

Today, bouquinistes must follow regulations regarding stall size and pay an annual fee to sell books, and, until recently, business has been brisk; collectively, over 240 bouquinistes cram 300,000 books into 900 stalls along nearly two miles of Seine waterfront, creating the largest open-air bookstore in the world. UNESCO even named the Seine riverbank a world heritage site in 2011.

Yet, the bouquinistes as we know them are in danger of turning into little more than trinket shops with matching roofs. According to an article published this summer by La Depeche, bouquinistes are increasingly feeling the pressure to sell cheap souvenirs rather than rare books. “We can’t count on books anymore,” said one bookseller in the article, whose stall overflowed with keychains, bottle openers, and postcards. Bouquinistes aren’t prohibited from selling trinkets; current regulations permit one out of every four stalls to sell items other than books. Indeed, many of the stalls on my recent visit overflowed with plastic curios, while books were hidden from sight.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                       Some sellers feel this is a bad omen, that souvenir sellers are diminishing the long and storied history associated with the trade. 

“We are calling on those who love Paris across the globe, those who love to stroll along the Seine, who want to preserve this unique cultural patrimony which we hold dear,” said David Noesk, a bouquiniste who recently started a petition aimed at doubling down on souvenir peddlers. “These souvenir merchants distort the objective which is at the very origin of our creation and the charm of our Parisian quays,” Noesk wrote on the petition website. So far, 12,000 people have signed the petition, 3,000 shy of the 15,000 goal, at which time the petition will be delivered to the mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago. Stay tuned for what happens next to the booksellers of the Seine.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Photo credit: Paris, Bouquinistes sur le quai de Tournelle, by E. Galien Laloue. Public Domain. 

Last week, New York’s Honey & Wax Booksellers announced the winners of its inaugural book collecting prize for young women. The new award was launched earlier this year by Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney in hopes of encouraging collecting among women under 30. In all, 48 submissions arrived from all corners of the country. One winner and five honorees were chosen. Said the booksellers, “It took us some time to read all those essays and bibliographies, but it was well worth it.”

JessPage1.jpgAnd this year’s winner is... 29-year-old Jessica Kahan (pictured at left), a public librarian in Ohio, for her 300-volume collection “Romance Novels of the Jazz Age and Depression Eras.” Kahan said she heard about the Honey & Wax prize through her 2012 National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest sponsor, Martha O’Hara Conway, director of the special collections library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who knew Kahan was developing a terrific collection of American romance novels, c. 1920s and 30s in their original dust jackets, and encouraged her to apply. Kahan’s collection impressed the Honey & Wax judges for its “breadth and depth ... Kahan’s refusal to condescend to her subject helps us see how a genre famous for its rigid conventions bends to reflect the changing lives of American women.”

KahanSpines2.jpgKahan, whose mother and grandmother were both librarians, has “always loved books” she told us. “I grew up surrounded by books and a strong love of reading and literature. Sometimes I joke that my romance novels collection is my rebellious reaction to being encouraged to read high-quality literature. My collection started in 2010, the year after I took an eye-opening History of the Book class as an undergraduate.”

With her $1,000 prize, Kahan said she intends to “donate part of the prize to a local food bank and to the Rachel P. Kahan Memorial Scholarship Fund at Michigan State University.” Then, she continued, “I plan to purchase a ‘celebration’ book. I’m not sure which book yet, but I have a few ideas. The rest of the prize will be used towards savings and funding my next rare book adventures.”

You can learn more about Kahan’s collection on her blog, thegoodbadbook.

The submission deadline for next year’s Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize is June 1.

Images via Honey & Wax

Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell_72dpi.jpgNew from Quirk Books is an account of the world of horror pulp fiction of the 1970s and ’80s. Author and horror historian Grady Hendrix (Horrorstör, My Best Friend’s Exorcism) traces the unexpected success of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and William Blatty’s The Exorcist--three nightmare novels that became bestsellers and spawned two decades of provocative horror publishing.

Stories of devils, demonic possession, strange science, and other themes are explored in devilish detail--with chapters like “Hail Satan,” and “Inhumanoids,” Hendrix explains how this standard checkout-aisle fare went from being the derided black sheep of the publishing industry during the 1940s and ’50s to taking over bestseller lists and movie screens.

“Horror was for nobodies,” writes Hendrix, that is, until books with Satan as the almighty culprit took center stage. Then, every horror story that came along tried to outgore the unholy trinity of Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, and The Exorcist, ultimately leading to the genre’s demise in the late 80s as a fading parody--“roadkill on the superhighway of the ’90s,” as Hendrix puts it. The author gleefully digs around this forgotten time capsule of the publishing world while also delving into the tales of the writers and artists who catapulted this genre into the public consciousness. Hendrix’s infectious zeal for killer creatures and the undead make Paperbacks from Hell truly enjoyable.

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix: Quirk Books, $24.99, 256 pages.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Image courtesy of Quirk Books

Collecting Dr. Johnson


It may sound like hyperbole, but there is something enchanting about the Samuel Johnson house, which can difficult to find even if navigating from a smart phone, even if you have been there before. Tucked away through alleys in a nearly hidden square of Fitzrovia in London, it’s a house that stands apart from the slick tall glass structures surrounding it. It’s also a house that remains popular for literary pilgrims despite Dr. Johnson’s age. This week, three days after the anniversary of Dr. Johnson’s 1709 birthdate of September 18, I ducked in to see their latest exhibition, Collecting Johnson: Attracted by rarity, seduced by example, and inflamed by competition, which brings together rare and intriguing items from ten prestigious private collections, both anonymous and named, of Johnsonia from Great Britain, America, and Australia. 

                                                                                                                                                                                 Despite his importance to the study of the English language, as the author of The Dictionary of the English Language, there is no single concentrated collection of Johnson material, as he himself decided to quickly sell off his possessions at auction upon his death to raise funds for a trust for his servant, a freed slave from Jamaica, and, essentially adopted son, Francis Barber and his family. 

                                                                                                                                                                                     What has been brought together is a curious selection of items and books, including volumes of his edition of Shakespeare, with an original subscription card -- ever disorganized, Johnson had scratched out one subscriber’s name and added another -- and rare pamphlets including one to remove “the nuisance of common prostitutes from the streets of this metropolis,” written mostly by Johnson, but published under the name Saunders Welch, one of the justices of Westminster. 

                                                                                                                                                                                  Another highlight is Johnson biographer James Boswell’s snuff box made of antler, a portrait of Johnson attributed to the “Circle of Joshua Reynolds” paired with its fascinating x-ray analysis, a print Johnson owned by John Milton, and contemporary objects featuring Johnson including a large Cheshire cheese platter.


Collecting Johnson runs through October 14.

                                                                                                                                                                                        Image credit: A.N. Devers

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