Two other veteran antiquarian booksellers, now deceased, mention a term for Burton's description above that, to me, sums up perfectly what an antiquarian bookseller does. In their memoir Old Books, Rare Friends, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern call the ability to discover value in a book "fingerspitzengefuhl." They say, "As far as we know, the word Finger-Spitzengefuhl never made it to a dictionary. It was originally Herbert Reichner [another bookseller to whom Rostenberg was an apprentice] who passed it on to us. A tingling of the fingertips becomes an electrical current of suspense, excitement, recognition. In an artificially controlled voice, one of us calls to the other, 'Look! This may be something.' And two heads look down upon the title page of a discovery. Sometimes the Finger-Spitzengefuhl occurs on the spot as we scan the shelves of a foreign dealer. Sometimes it takes place only after the purchase has been made and we study our finds. Whenever or wherever it occurs, it is an experience that makes the rare book business a hymn to joy."
Additionally, Pat and Allen Ahearn, experienced booksellers and authors of Author Price Guides, Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide, and Collected Books, weigh in with the opinion that books bought as objects deserve special qualification as antiquarian: "It would seem that the transition from reader to collector occurs when the book itself is perceived as an object, akin to art perhaps. Certainly, if you are going to pay $25 or $50 for a first edition when you could borrow a copy from the library or purchase a paperback reprint for $5.95 (and up), you have bought an object that you want to own and actually look at occasionally, just as you want to own an original painting or a signed limited print when there are copies available at significantly lower prices."
If we begin to think about owning books as objects, as opposed to owning books for their reading content alone, we can establish some other guidelines. Some of the assumptions others make about antiquarian books can be easily dispelled here. First, scarcity does not equal rarity. If only ten copies of a book exist but there is no interest in the subject, it may not be a significant enough book to be financially valuable for an antiquarian bookseller. However, when I find a book that is scarce, I take the time to research whether it is or is not a significant book. Sometimes that research pays off and sometimes it leads to a dead end. For me, this not knowing the end result in advance is part of the fun and challenge of antiquarian bookselling.
Secondly, age does not necessarily imply rarity or value. Many people assume that because a book is old, the book has value. This is usually not the case, unless that particular title is in demand or that particular subject generates a lot of current interest or has san intrinsic importance. Bibles are a good example of this principle. Although Bibles are considered important by their owners, most of the thousands of editions of the Bible published over time are not financially enriching, with the exceptions of a few early printed Bibles. The Bible has been printed so often that it is not, at this point in history, a rare book by any means.
Finally, condition plays an important role in antiquarian bookselling. A book that is in less than fine condition must be in very high demand or contain very important information in order to be of substantial value to the antiquarian bookseller. Otherwise, an antiquarian bookseller seeks to sell fine books as opposed to reading copies.
The antiquarian booksellers I know personally include, among others, sellers of ancient books about science and medicine, sellers of great works of literature, and sellers of modern first editions (books published in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries). On the surface, these sellers would seem to have nothing in common. However, they are all antiquarian booksellers. The unifying factor among them is their ability to apply their specialized knowledge to the books they find and create value, and, in some cases, even create new markets. The ability to do this is, in the words of Rostenberg and Stern, a hymn to joy indeed.
If you'd like to learn more about the field of antiquarian bookselling, go straight to the source. Following is a list of books about bookselling written by antiquarian booksellers. Although most on the list were written prior to the age of internet bookselling, much can be gleaned from their experiences.
Everitt, Charles P. The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter. A Rare Bookman in Search of American History. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1951.
Gekoski, Rick. Tolkien's Gown & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books. 2004. London: Constable. (Ok, this one's pretty current. Great stories, though.)
Lewis, Roy Harley. Antiquarian Books: An Insider's Account. 1978. New York: Arco Publishing Company.
Magee, David. Infinite Riches: The Adventures of a Rare Book Dealer. New York. Paul S. Eriksson, Inc. 1973. (I like this one because the author was a San Francisco bookman.)
Meador, Roy and Mondlin, Marvin. Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers. 2004.
Rosenbach, A.S.W. Books and Bidders. The Adventures of a Bibliophile. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1927.
Rostenberg, Leona and Stern, Madeleine. Old Books, Rare Friends. Doubleday. 1997
Rostenberg, Leona and Stern, Madeleine. Old & Rare, Forty Years in the Book Business. Allenheld and Schram. 1974.
Rostenberg, Leona and Stern, Madeleine. s. Allenheld and Schram. 1977.
N.B. The bibliographical information I've listed above is not necessarily for a first edition. It's for the edition I own or have borrowed from my library, which is in some cases a later printing.
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