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The Accidental Antiquarian

The Literary Life

by Chris Lowenstein

#107, 12 November 2007

Some people want to be millionaires. Some want to be professional athletes. Some want to be famous. I always wanted to live a literary life. From the time I learned to read, I wanted to be a writer, a book reviewer, an editor, a critic, or an English teacher - anything to do with books. Strangely, the idea of being a book collector or an antiquarian bookseller never occurred to me, perhaps because I never knew any book collectors personally and just speaking the word "antiquarian" conveyed the dusty layers and cobwebs of the past rather than the future, toward which I was always working.

I worked at a Waldenbooks during my high school years, then for the University Librarian at my college. Though you would think it might have happened at a university library, I had no exposure to antiquarian books during this time. I was instead confined to a windowless basement office, where I sorted and alphabetized Library of Congress cards for a large cataloguing project. Despite working for a large chain that sold only bestsellers and sorting catalogue cards in a dungeon, I still loved books. During my summer breaks from college, I spent four years working for a local publisher, learning about how books are published and marketed. I worked for a textbook publisher immediately after college, learning how much I did not actually want to be a book editor. I went back to school and earned a teaching credential in English, teaching high school students for six years, and enjoying every minute of it (really).

My literary life came to an abrupt dénouement when my husband and I had two children in two years. The reality of parenthood was that there was little time for grading homework, attending faculty meetings, and being available to students in the ways that all good teachers need to be available. I didn't even have time to read a newspaper. I decided to slow my pace and quit teaching, at least until my youngest child entered first grade. I missed teaching, but am glad I got to participate in every moment of my children's formative years, even the difficult ones.

Not only did I miss teaching, I also missed my books. I had no extended periods of free time for reading for about three years. Free time that I did have was filled with trips to the grocery store and other small errands. When I got the chance to read in the evenings, after everyone else was asleep, I was so exhausted, I'd fall asleep about three pages into any book I started. I loved being a mother, but I did lament the loss of that bit of daily time just to read a few pages on subjects totally unrelated to raising children.

Fast forward a couple of years. Both kids were (finally) sleeping through the night, a little more independent in their play, and I actually read a few books from time to time. It just so happens that the author Nicholas Basbanes* visited the Bay Area during this time to talk about one of his many wonderful books about books. My mother, knowing my love of books, clipped the article about his discussion from the local paper and gave it to me. I wasn't able to attend the lecture but thought I'd try to pick up a copy of one of the books mentioned in the article, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. It sounded like a book I'd like - a book about books.

A few weeks later I went out to the local Borders and got a copy of the book, putting it aside to read on a summer vacation. For one week, while my children splashed in a lake, I sat down (for the first time in years) in a beach chair and read relatively uninterrupted. I devoured the thick book, and then went home and immediately bought all of the other books written by Basbanes. When I finished reading those, I wondered to myself, "With a life spent around books, why didn't I know about antiquarian books before?" Though I had never seen an actual antiquarian book, book collecting sounded like a perfect hobby for me. The only problem was that I had few monetary resources to buy loads of antiquarian books. Didn't those cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars? Also, I was a little too intimidated to cross the threshold of a wood-paneled, floor-to-ceiling-shelved antiquarian bookshop to find out more about antiquarian books. How much knowledge would a bookseller expect a customer to have? Could I ask questions, or would that make me appear ignorant? Could I buy a book in such a shop for less than hundreds of dollars?

Fortunately, my discovery of book collecting coincided with my discovery of library and estate sales and with the rise of eBay and internet bookselling. Using money I earned from a small tutoring job, I began to scout books at all of these venues and more, trying to learn along the way about things like points of issue and authenticity. Sure, I made some mistakes, but I found plenty of good antiquarian books at good prices, even some bargains, and I used my mistakes to teach myself to choose more wisely in the future. Eventually, I started buying books outside of my personal collecting interests, wondering if I could someday become knowledgeable enough to become an antiquarian bookseller. If I owned my own business, I theorized, I could be more flexible with my time and more available to my family than I could following the rigid daily schedule of a teacher.

As a preliminary test of my bookselling abilities, I offered two books for auction on eBay. I took care to describe them using appropriate book collector terminology and used lots of photos. As a result, I made enough money to fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles and attend the ABAA Book Fair that year. I stayed with friends in the area, so I had no other real costs. I wandered the aisles of the fair, a spectator, looking at the finest assortment of books ever assembled in one location, feeling lucky just to be in their presence, and I wondered how I could become not just a bookseller but an antiquarian bookseller.

That was in 2006. After continued reading about and study of the antiquarian book trade, I gathered my courage and opened my business, Book Hunter's Holiday, in January 2007. I've fallen deeper in love with antiquarian bookselling every day, and I continue to avail myself of opportunities to learn about the trade. I'm no millionaire, athlete, or celebrity, but I love my job. It's possible to go from just selling books to selling better books - antiquarian books. It takes courage, independence, education, and the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

I'll be contributing articles to BookThink and discussing my education as an antiquarian bookseller, from choosing a company name and logo to meeting other booksellers and scouting saleable books. I've spent the past year developing a website, cataloguing my books in a database, becoming educated about antiquarian books, selling books at a book fair, and writing a print catalogue. I'll share my triumphs and my mistakes along the way. Though I'm still a novice, I'm finally living the literary life I'd always envisioned.

*I mentioned reading all of the books by Nicholas Basbanes when I began to become aware of antiquarian books. If, like me, you're new to the world of antiquarian books but want to know more, his books provide a wonderful historical perspective of the field and an overview of where the future may be headed. Here's a complete list:

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. Henry Holt, 1995; paperback Owl Books, 1999.

Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. HarperCollins, 2001; subtitle varies in paperback Perennial, 2003.

Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century. Henry Holt, 2002; paperback Owl Books, 2003.

A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. HarperCollins, 2003; paperback Perennial, 2004.

Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World. HarperCollins, forthcoming in late 2005.

Editions and Impressions: Twenty Years on the Book Beat (available December 10, 2007). Fine Books Press, 2008.

EDITOR'S NOTE: BookThink interviewed Basbanes in 2005.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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