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Antiquarian Book Collecting in Southern California

Gordon Hollis

Very few of us will contest the role of the book in the history of Western culture, yet it is surprising that very few people actually own any antiquarian books at all. It is true that here in California, there is sizeable interest in book collecting, but that interest, in 9 out of 10 cases, is for books printed from 1850 onward , for the modern first edition, the Victorian novel, the Art Nouveau fine press book, post civil war exploration , etc, even though the printed book was developed in the 15th century and was a common object all over Europe within a hundred years. This lack of interest means that very few people collect the majority of books: those which were printed during the first 400 years of printing. They either leave that function to others or to the rare book libraries, like the one in which we are seated.

While many people have some old books on their shelves which were inherited from their grandparents, or bought somewhere, sometime at an antique store, it is sad to realize the owners of these objects have not developed a passion for them. They do not take these books down from the mantel to wonder about their bindings or about the role they play in the history of printing. To the detriment of all, many people potentially interested in antiquarian book collecting seem never to get fully involved but hover on the outskirts. They go to book fairs to look in wonder at the treasures in glass cases, but they rarely follow those treasures back to the bookshops of their owners, rarely appear at a reference desk of a great library like the Clark, Getty or Huntington, rarely become part of the book collecting community, and then they finally disappear from sight like the woman dressed in white in a Wilkie Collins novel.

It is obvious to me that the stumbling block which prevents many from collecting older books is not money, because old and even very old books are often inexpensive; rather, the stumbling block is that they really don’t understand the process and rewards of antiquarian book collecting, and they are at the same time intimidated by the many unknowns of our field such as complexities of bibliography, and variations in pricing.

Let's start by looking at the way most novices think of antiquarian book collecting. Most often one thinks of collecting the classics: Few of us will not feel awe when we think of the writings of Newton or Milton, or Spinoza; or of the great explorers from Cortez' and Drake's time forward, or of religious thinkers whom, from the early renaissance used the book to defend and teach their faith. With our veneration of these thinkers, it would seem natural that most of us would love to have examples of the first editions in which these giants put forth their ideas. Perhaps, for me, a signed, first edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost would be the equivalent of a religious relic, as meaningful to me as the bones of Saint Jerome might have been to a pious pilgrim, when he saw them, beautifully boxed, in a fine shop in Athens on his way to the Holy Land a thousand years ago.

Of course, most of us would be intimidated by books that cost $5000 to $50,000 each to collect. Few of us can afford to buy those books which Matthew Arnold called the "touchstones" of our civilization. But there is another reason why more of us don't collect the classics, and that reason is that we do not learn very much from them, because we already know what they symbolize. A first edition of Paradise Lost is, indeed, a great treasure. We all have read it and are fully aware of its power and beauty. But holding it in our hands is an experience of worship but not of learning.

Book collecting by subject matter, however, can be a creative and intellectually stimulating endeavor, as the world of antiquarian books consists of much more than the few giants chiseled out on the Mount Rushmore of literature and science. Why not collect the inexpensive although rare books of the men who wrote early American texts on building? To see an early 19th century American text on carpentry, printed on cheap and grainy paper, bound in wrinkled sheep, is to see a text that is at the very foundation of early American's desire for property, and it is in a sense responsible for the urban sprawl of today's western cities. Or why not consider collecting early books on manners? 18th and early 19th century girls carried tiny little books of etiquette to their cotillions and dances. From these little manuals, a girl learned new dances, and she learned the polite way to reject boys with whom she did not wish to dance. How fascinating it is to see how different generations defined grace in girls and the suitability of boys. How different yet how similar to our own day.

There are old books to be found on flower breeding and horse care; fencing and sword fighting, wrestling and bone mending techniques, knitting and weaving; books on the origin of kite flying and books on the role of the yo_yo in French political satire of the 18th century. In short, there are books on every subject conceived of by human nature. What better way to enjoy yourself and continue your education than to find an 18th century book about which you know little and then learn about it?

Aside from the subject matter, one can collect books from a specific printer, binder or papermaker, books from a specific century or a specific location; One can collect books with different types of illustrations, be they engravings, etchings or lithographs. There are in short books in every shape and size and format. The collecting possibilities of antiquarian books are as endless as the subject matter in the millions of volumes from the past that still exist.

Let us say that you are interested in old books. How can you begin on the path to book collecting? Well, first of all you can get some idea of what you want to collect. Go to bookfairs, bookshops and libraries. Look at books and ask yourself what you like and why. Let's say you do this, and you conclude that you would like to collect books on....chess. Well, where can you find chess books? In Southern California we have many, many bookshops that sell old books. Say you are walking on Ventura Boulevard or on Brand Ave in Glendale or Little Santa Monica in West L.A. Walk into any bookshop and ask if they have any old books on chess? Let's say that the proprietor goes to the shelf behind him and retrieves a book. It is dated 1802. There is a note in pencil on the flyleaf that says Rare with two exclamation points !! The price is $200. This is one way.

Another way to begin is to go to a bookfair or to get a directory of antiquarian bookshops. Let's say you walk into a distinguished looking shop in West Hollywood and ask for old books on chess. The proprietor shows you conceivably the same edition on chess as you saw before, but this time you find inserted a two page typewritten description which accounts for the type of binding, kind of illustrations used, the number of copies held in important libraries, and the role this edition played in the development of later chess techniques. The price is $300.

Same book different approach. Which one do you buy? This might be the time to define what exactly is an antiquarian book? Well, in my opinion an antiquarian book is old. Old to my mind, is at least a century and a half old, perhaps as old as the time when books came out in small editions, before paper and books were made by modern manufacturing processes. In other words, an antiquarian book is old and it is rare by virtue of its small press run, due to pre-assembly line technology.

Secondly, an antiquarian books has had a "number" done on it...or, said another way, it has been subjected to a number of studies that account for its origin, its completeness, and its placement within its subject matter and time. An antiquarian book, in other words, is one that has been subjected to bibliographic research and analytic scholarship.

Why is scholarship so essential to the antiquarian book? Well first and foremost, scholarship identifies what role the book played in its time and how it shaped the future. While the bookseller who has a first edition of Milton has plenty to explain, he doesn't have to tell us of its importance. We know that. The bookseller of the chess item, however, will have to explain to us why we should buy it. Perhaps, this 1802 chess book brought forth a maneuver which reshaped the entire game. Perhaps, this was the first chess book to use lithographs for its illustrations and could be printed in a much larger edition than before. This, in turn helped to spread the game to a much wider audience. From collecting chess books we can see the evolution of the game from the earliest time until today, and this is one of the joys of building a subject collection.

Scholarship also is important because it can guarantee that the book is complete and if not it will explain what is missing. A book several hundred years old may have been altered in any number of ways. To mention just a few: An old book can have pages missing. It can be rebound. It can be cleaned and have its missing pages supplied from another copy. A good antiquarian bookperson will have the experience and the reference guides to identify and explain any changes.

To summarize, an antiquarian book is an old book that has been placed in its historical context and guaranteed by an expert. This then is the difference between the two bookshops I've mentioned: one is a used bookshop owned by a booklover; the other an antiquarian bookshop owned by a booklover who is also a scholar.

It is a simple matter to locate and find either type of bookshop. Let's say you prefer the first kind, as you are just beginning. Perhaps you love chess but you do not care about or understand all of this scholarship or the lengthy description with all those citations at the bottom which for all the world look like a row of battle ribbons pinned on a general's chest. Perhaps you just want a handsome old edition on chess for your mantelpiece. As a result, you go back to Ventura Blvd or Brand Ave and buy the first copy. Rare. Two exclamation points. True it has a worn binding, and it seems to be missing a portrait at the front, but _ hey _ it doesn't matter and, it is $100 cheaper. So, go ahead. Enjoy.

One of two things will happens to that book on the mantle. It will be forgotten. You will stop seeing it there altogether, and it will sooner or later be slipped into a bookcase. On the other hand, it may become an object that incites curiosity. You may take it down from the mantlepiece, and you may begin to wonder about how many people played chess in 1802, and from what social class were they. What kinds of moves were made in those days? Was it sold it a bookshop or could you buy it at a chess match?

When a person responds with curiosity to an old book, he may respond to the binding, the type face styles, paper, or kind of illustrations. The subject matter may be his interest or he may not know why he responds, except that he does and does strongly. If this happens to you, then you will have the opportunity to fall down the rabbit hole of curiosity into the strange and intimidating world of antiquarian book collecting.

Many collectors nowadays are "amateurs" in the true sense of being informed collectors. How does one go about this? How does a newcomer armed with nothing more than curiosity, become part of the antiquarian community which is characterized by its formidable expertise and scholarship?

Well, in two minutes, know that the community does exist. This community is devoted to the love and study of the old book. It is a community in the true sense: small, tight-knit, extremely helpful, varied. When Lee Biondi, who will speak next about Dickens, first got interested in collecting, he used to come into my shop and I would talk to him about old books telling him what I knew; now I go into Heritage Bookshop where Lee works and Lee tells me what he knows. I always learn a lot. A couple of years ago I got interested in old-master prints and wanted to learn about them. I happened to mention this interest to Tom Lange at the Huntington Library who promptly invited me to look through the Huntington's vast print collection. Tom not only invited me out, but he personally spent a great deal of time showing me how to identify quality, impression and states of prints.

Know that the community does exist. The beginner can join easily. Go back to the second bookshop. The antiquarian bookshop. Tell him that you might like to collect chess books, but you need to know more before you begin. Ask him if he could recommend basic reference books to read. Perhaps there is a bibliography which is a book that describes and often pictures the important rare books in the field. Ask him where you could go to see a collection of books on chess as there may be one in the area.

Oftentimes, the bookseller himself is often an expert. Here in Southern California, we are fortunate to have a number of expert booksellers in a variety of fields. There is a directory of member of the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association, and this directory lists the specialties and interests of its members. For example: Michael Dawson of Dawson's Bookshop on Larchmont has done a great deal of research on the history of photography and is about to publish an important new bibliography of early books illustrated with photographs.

The Southern California chapter of the ABAA has expert dealers in many antiquarian subjects including early American travels, early printing, Judaica, the occult and metaphysic, medicine and science, philosophy, and many others.

We also here in Los Angeles have world famous research centers like the Getty, the Huntington, UCLA, U.S.C., the Clark Library and others which are staffed by experts who have devoted their lives to the study of the book. Most libraries have detailed websites that explain their collections. All are open to the public. Some like the Huntington and the Getty are restricted to advanced scholars, but certainly welcome any visitor who can best be served by using their specific collections.

Others like the Clark make their vast resources relating to English culture of the 17th and 18th centuries, Oscar Wilde and the 1890s, and fine printing and the book arts available to anyone.

According to Librarian Bruce Whiteman who has graciously lent us this hall, a novice collector who came here could certainly take away a number of things, including a brochure describing the collections, our newsletter (twice a year), brochures on our conferences and concerts, etc. Any reader is accorded the same privileges, apart from the use of our private cubicles, which are reserved for Clark fellows. A reference librarian is usually on call, and the Reading Room supervisor can answer many basic questions.

Bruce notes, "We aim to please, despite the fact that like most rare book libraries the place can seem daunting at first. It isn't once you get used to it."

To end this talk, I'll tell a story about how I became an antiquarian book dealer. In 1979, after selling modern first editions for a few years, I realized I was fascinated by older books, and I wanted to learn more about them. So, I got a job in a auction house in Philadelphia as an apprentice. Two days later, the person in charge, well into his 80s suddenly died, leaving me as the only person in the department. The next day the auction house director called me in and asked how much I knew about old books? "A lot," I lied. He said, "Well good because the Builder's Library, the oldest architectural library in the United States, had been promised an appraisal of their holdings by my late boss for 14 years, and they were about to file suit for compliance, so go down the street and appraise it."

One look at the early books on architecture made me realize that I was not going to be able to appraise this library by myself. I threw myself upon the mercy of the magnificent antiquarian book community of Philadelphia. My simple desire to learn more about old books brought me into the bookshops of the late George Allen, Norman Kane, Clarence Wolf and others. I was also welcomed into the offices of world famous librarians such as Howell Heany then of the Free Library, Willman Spawn of the American Antiquarian Society, even Ed Wolf of the Library Company. All these and many others acting on nothing more than our mutual love for books helped me on my path of discovery.


This article is Copyright © Gordon Hollis. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.
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