Rare & Collectible Books
Don’t throw away those old tomes: they’re worth keeping!
“Books are both information and artifacts,” says Dick Lowenstein, former Westport Library trustee and rare book hunter/collector. “And people need to know that books aren’t going away.” No one works harder to bring books to Westport’s grand public resource for the library’s sales (in December and July) than Lowenstein, through his catalogic knowledge and the business (read: “being busy”) of scouring donation sites, boxing up tomes, scanning titles and sorting them in a hidden nook on the WPL’s first floor.
If you think good old-fashioned reading materials are just for the recycling bin these days, think again: collecting books, rare or otherwise, has never been more timely, more newsworthy, or more profitable and enjoyable. However, people’s collections are as unique as their interests. Some seek rare first editions of, say, novels, poetry and plays, or truly esoteric works in valued niches. Others simply collect/buy genre works, such as science-fiction, romance, mystery or fantasy. This can net you some serious money, too: the first UK edition of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is worth about $45,000. Stephen King’s first editions also fetch high sums, for example.
For Lowenstein, and an institution such as the Westport Library, the annual sales encourage people to start collecting at lower price points as well as higher-dollar values. “The thrill of finding a book is important—that’s why people go to antiques stores, and book sales,” he notes. “And on the first day (of our summer sale) it’s a mob scene. But I like to think of the sale as being for the budding collector.”
Last year, the library quickly sold an autographed rarity, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), that had been shelved in its Philosophy stacks. It was a donation copy that a librarian noticed as significant, and pulled. Due to certain aspects concerning the autograph, it sold for $1,000. But there’s something more crucial to collecting books, rare or no. Lowenstein points out that books are intensely personal objects for their owners. “Books tell about people’s lives—their aspirations, their hopes, their health problems, even,” he says. “They tell you who, what, where, how: everything. In some ways, it can even be embarrassing.” But different rare book dealers (see the list below) offer different experiences.
My most recent—and extremely enjoyable—experience came during an afternoon at the home of Fairfield’s Bill Schaberg, proprietor of Athena Rare Books, who runs a genuinely high-end rare books dealership. A booklover, graduate of Fairfield University (’66), and the author of 1995’s The Nietzsche Canon, the definitive work on how to identify first editions by the German philosopher, Schaberg’s converted Fairfield garage is a jewel box of rarities reflecting his personal interests, business acumen and bibliophilia. Schaberg began collecting in 1984, when, after an American Philosophical Association conference in New York, he wandered into the attached group of university presses’ sales area, and purchased his first rare book from a dealer who was also on hand.
From that time on, he and his wife, Sara Jaeger, have been in the business, building a superb collection and very successful rare-book trade. “Basically, you define a niche, and build on that,” Schaberg says. “I am fascinated by philosophy, and I began by buying Nietzsche books.” In the heart of his comfortable operation, surrounded by an array of owls—Athena’s symbol, Glaucus—of varied charming design, there is a casement filled with the (literal) business end of his collection. “What’s in the center barrister is for sale,” he says. “The shelves around it contain my collection.”
The much-taped and decaying copy of my father’s 1943 St. Andrew Daily Missal.; The barrister bookcase, with rare books for sale, at Athena.
You can find out what’s for sale through the very polished catalogs Schaberg produces, and by visiting his website. On offer is an amazing collection of philosophy works and more.
Closer to my heart, and also dear to Schaberg’s own, were other books, though, beyond his saleable items. He possesses one of the rarest first editions on the planet (only 10 were bound in Moroccan red leather) of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, for example, in addition to first editions by Spinoza and Descartes, to name a few. That Locke first edition was not in the center barrister, by the way.
Marked “1689,” the title page in Schaberg’s rare first edition of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, most famous for the expression “tabula rasa”: “blank slate.”
The dedicatory epistle to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Nor were first editions of T.S. Eliot’s works (true treats for me, as a poetry lover, to see), as well as a stretch from a Shostakovich score framed on the wall. All I can say is that, if one were to be a rare book dealer, there are fewer better ways to do it, or to live in general, I’d say, than the way Bill Schaberg does.
First editions of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, his late masterpiece.
A first edition of Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917, by T.S. Eliot. Worth roughly $15,000 to collectors; The title page of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, a first edition from 1922, perhaps the most important long work of 20th-century verse in English.
For my own part over the years, I’ve collected primarily poetry paperbacks due to their cover art (Anchor and Doubleday editions, with designs by Edward Gorey) and the translations contained within. Some of these are out of print, but hardly true rarities, though they’re worth something to me, because when I bought them, I was a grad student on a tight budget, scouring used Manhattan books stores for bargains. So in terms of my own collecting impulses, I’m certainly on the low-end spectrum of value—still a “budding collector.”
That said, the most important item in my collection, which I’ve had to thin over the years, is a taped-up work that probably isn’t of much value to anyone but me. It’s a copy of the St. Andrew Daily Missal, a reprint from 1943. It belongs, however, to my father, who has been in assisted living since 2010. As I say, of all my books, it may not be very rare or collectible, but I have to admit that, honestly, it’s my most precious.
BOOK COLLECTING SITES, RARE BOOKS DEALERS & CONNECTICUT STORES
A general starting point is the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America—visit www.abaa.org for more information. Most rare book dealers or stores offer visits by appointment, so it’s best to call or visit them online first.
Recommended Novels (& More) About Rare Books & Rare Book Dealers
• The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte—Made into a not-so-good movie (but starring Johnny Depp), this is a peach of a rare bookist’s read.
• Booked to Die by John Dunning—Cliff Janeway’s first outing…he’s a homicide detective who also is a collector of rare books.
• Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone—Former Westporters, the Goldstones’s nifty account about their entrée into the realm of rare book collecting is touching and informative.
• The Burglar in the Library by Lawrence Block—Out to nick a Raymond Chandler first edition, Bernie Rhodenbarr must solve a crime!
David Podgurski is a writer and editor who has lived in Fairfield County his entire life. A former books columnist for The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time newspapers. Feel free to email David.