Becoming an Antiquarian Bookseller
Part I: Knowledge Adds Value
When I decided to become an antiquarian bookseller, I wondered how I could obtain the kind of specialized knowledge that adds value to books. Was this knowledge something I should possess innately? Was it something that could be taught, and if so, where could I go to learn it? Did antiquarian booksellers ever share their research secrets? In answer to these questions, I learned that several things help build the knowledge of an antiquarian bookseller: experience, education, and expansion. If you're bored just listing books you find based on the prices others are asking for the same book, this article is for you.
When I started selling antiquarian books, I failed to take into account how my prior experience could help me. I was an English major in college and also taught high school English for several years. During my teenage years I worked in a bookstore, for a university library, and for a small publisher. While this might seem very literary, I had little if any exposure to antiquarian books at the time. Still, my education combined with my work experiences exposed me to the names of the high spots in literature and to the processes by which literature is marketed to and judged by consumers. This experience has turned out to be very beneficial in terms of providing a good foundation of literary knowledge upon which I could build.
Wanting to learn all I could about antiquarian books, I read every book I could find on the subject, beginning with Nicholas Basbanes' excellent series on the history of books and book collectors. A few years later, I'm still working my way through stacks of bookseller memoirs, collector reminiscences, and books about books. Whatever your experience prior to antiquarian books is, you can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us to get a good introduction to antiquarian books by reading what they've left behind.
Prior experience and self-education are good beginnings for an antiquarian bookseller; however, if you are serious about your career, you should plan to continue your formal education. In addition to reading about antiquarians and their books, several courses are available. ABAA bookseller David Gregor travels to different parts of the country a few times a year offering two excellent, one-day seminars about book collecting and bookselling:
If you find you have the inclination for an overview of all the types of antiquarian booksellers available, take the week-long Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.
Offered at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, it features a diverse faculty made up of all different types of booksellers - internet only, open shop, librarian, book conservator, specialist dealer, etc. It covers the gamut from how to find and evaluate stock to buying at auction to writing a print catalogue to selling on the internet and attending book fairs.
The Seminar has existed for 30 years, offers both partial and full scholarships, and offers you the chance to meet other booksellers and to expand your knowledge. I also suggest you read Karen Isgur Bergsagel's highly informative BookThink article about her experience in Colorado last summer here.
If you need less of an overview of antiquarian bookselling and more specific information about antiquarian books themselves, consider Rare Book School at the University of Virginia:
Founded in 1983 by Terry Belanger (recipient of the 2005 MacArthur "Genius" Grant for his rare book prowess), Rare Book School offers courses with names like "Book Illustration Processes to 1900," "Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographic Description," and "Introduction to Illuminated Manuscripts." If you find yourself interested in these subjects, antiquarian bookselling may be just the thing for you! Like the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, Rare Book School also offers scholarships. Both organizations realize the importance of helping antiquarian booksellers, particularly those of us new to the trade, learn to be professionals. New booksellers with serious intentions of becoming professionals are welcome.
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Questions or comments?
Questions or comments?