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."
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