Close this window to return to BookThink

The Accidental Antiquarian

What is an Antiquarian Bookseller, Anyway?

by Chris Lowenstein

#110, 24 December 2007

Every antiquarian bookseller's lament is that there are so many people who don't understand her chosen field. Mention the words "antiquarian books" to those who aren't collectors or sellers of them and you'll likely hear, "Oh, you sell books about antiques. That's wonderful!" or, my favorite, "Did you say you sold books about aquariums?" One wishes there was a simple way to clarify what we do for a living for the uninitiated.

Even amongst other booksellers, the term "antiquarian book" evokes heady thoughts of papyrus, vellum, parchment, rag paper, leather binding, gilt tooling, or marbled paper. While these words certainly suggest ancient tomes, the term "antiquarian book" actually has a broader meaning, one that is at once simple and difficult to articulate.

A history of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America found on its website reveals that the initial group of 50 booksellers who met in 1949 to form the well-known bookselling association had a tough time determining the best definition of antiquarian: "The next question arose as to the definition of an 'antiquarian bookseller,' and debate centered on such issues as the necessity of having sales-tax registrations, and the ineligibility of persons engaging in the trade as a 'sideline.' Herman Cohen brought what was described as 'appreciative laughter' when he asked, 'Who wants to define sideline?'"

Coming up with a rigid definition was contentious even for this group of experts in the field. Presently, in their handy glossary of terms the ABAA has not included definitions of "rare" or "antiquarian books," suggesting just how difficult it is to pin down to a specific meaning of this seemingly innocuous term.

Like the ABAA, John Carter's well-known reference, ABC for Book Collectors, a readable dictionary of terms related to the field of book collecting, has a rather vague definition of an antiquarian bookseller: "The lines of demarcation between 'rare books,' 'old books,' and 'second-hand books' have never been, and can never be, clearly defined. The same applies to most of those who deal in them; and the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association of America (ABAA) makes no distinction between a man who specializes in incunabula, another who deals only in modern firsts, and a third who restricts himself to botany, and finally a general second-hand dealer, provided that his business is primarily in old books."

Astonishingly, another usually quite useful reference, Geoffrey Ashall Glaister's Encyclopedia of the Book, a compendium of many useful book-related terms, does not have any entries for the words "antiquarian," "rare," or "scarce." How, then, to define this term, "antiquarian"?

If you're interested in selling or collecting antiquarian books, you'll need to inform yourself a bit further, so that you know what is generally meant by the term "antiquarian book." In fact, I think that the word "information" is one thing that sets the antiquarian bookseller apart from his other bookselling colleagues. In my experience, antiquarian books are books that have required me to have either particular knowledge to understand their value (e.g. I recognize a book as the unknown first work of a later famous author) or, in the absence of that knowledge, have required me to research the book to discover what might be especially valuable about it. Sometimes this research pays off, and I discover that I have a good "find." Other times, further research reveals that a book I selected merely because of its age or its pretty binding is not especially valuable at all. As I gain more experience and more knowledge, I become better at selecting antiquarian books, which are the focus of my business, Book Hunter's Holiday.

In Nicholas Basbanes' book about book collectors and booksellers, Among the Gently Mad, the author credits John Hill Burton, a nineteenth century Scottish bibliophile with this glib comment about collectors (and by extension sellers) of antiquarian books: "It is, as you will observe, the general ambition of the class to find value where there seems to be none, and this develops a skill and subtlety, enabling the operator, in the midst of a heap of rubbish, to put his finger on those things which have in them the latent capacity to become valuable and curious."

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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC