So it appears I’ve become a book collector.
To be clear, I’ve always been a book accumulator. There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t have shelves and shelves of books at my disposal. I learned to read in kindergarten in Albuquerque (a classroom of one, I had progressive parents) and was reading well beyond my age from the beginning.
I remember in third grade, we were living in Los Angeles, and my grandmother, Bubby Sophie, came to visit. She had bought 8-year-old me a couple of Hardy Boys books as a present. I thanked her and went into my room to read. When I emerged a little while later, announcing I was finished, I was told to go and read the other one. When I explained I had read that one as well, Bubby rushed out, bought me four more, and hoped they would keep me busy. Even later, when my sister was having trouble getting through books, Bubby made her a deal: Finish one book in the series and she (Bubby) would buy the next. When I asked if I could have the same deal, I was given a definitive “No!”
I was the proverbial “flashlight under the covers” kid. The one who would find a quite corner at recess to read. I always had a book with me (still do) and would read in any spare moment. Punishment for me was having to go play outside without a book. I volunteered to do the scholastic book sales and quickly figured out that while the deal of getting a free book for every five you ordered was great on its own, as the student coordinator it didn’t take long to realize if student A ordered 2 books, and student B ordered 3 books, there was a free book just waiting to be claimed. Of course, it wasn’t until much later I got the idea this was how teachers could stock their room libraries and thankfully, my teachers allowed me to get away with my literary larcenies. I ended up with a lot of books (including The Shark in Charlie’s Window, which, along with Anne McCaffrey, is responsible for my love of SF/Fantasy).
Needless to say, I’m a reader. And I love books. Not just reading them, but the physical artifact, too. Sure, I now have a Kindle but when I first went to University, I took WAY too many books with me. Being a lover of books, it stands to reason, I would get into the idea of collecting but I never quite understood it. Sure, I have a number of signed books from authors I admire and friends who have written books. I’ve waited in long lines to get a signature on a frontispiece and have the 30 second opportunity to gush. I’ve loved going to antique stores and finding old books, with cool bindings. Even if I didn’t particularly care for the content, if the book itself was neat, I’d get it. Again, though, I never understood the idea of collecting in any meaningful way. I was proud of my “special books,” the ones signed or of a particular age, but I never thought of preserving them or of their value outside of my intrinsic ownership of them.
Then I got a job at Bauman Rare Books.
I learned what book collecting really was. I regularly handled books worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It didn’t take long before phrases like “It’s only twelve thousand dollars” would, unironically, escape my lips. I learned about the four tenets of collection (Edition, Condition, Scarcity, Value) and ways to assemble a quality library.
Even though I could see and understand all of this, deep down, I knew I wasn’t really a collector. I had an appreciation for books, certainly, but I could never see myself spending that kind of money on a book… except maybe a first edition of Alice in Wonderland…and that’s where the chink in the armor appears. It’s like the apocryphal Winston Churchill (or maybe George Bernard Shaw) story: “We’re just haggling about price.” As soon as you have an exception, you’ve let yourself in for the possibility of collecting.
When I worked for Bauman, I also learned about book sourcing, and specialty dealers, and ways to find books you want. So in my spare time, under the auspices of work related research (which I was doing), I would find first edition copies of books I loved as a young person and I started to order them for myself. Nothing major, mind you, but little pieces here and there. I found a nice copy of This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, which had been pivotal for me when presented with it in 9th grade. I found a beautiful first of The Stunt Man, the basis for one of my favorite films. It always starts slowly, doesn’t it?
I began to look through my existent library to see which books I had were first editions? Which ones were signed? I began thinking of how to protect their dust jackets (often the most valuable part of the book). I started to really pay attention to what I had and how my collection was shaping up… but I was still in denial. I was still only a part-time collector who didn’t fully embrace what was happening. When I moved overseas, aside from again bringing too many books, I brought a few special ones, including the two already mentioned and a signed (but later edition) copy of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Two years ago, I was in London and met up with Jonathan Kearns, who at the time was working for Adrian Harrington booksellers (he’s since opened his own shop, Jonathan Kearns Rare Books and Curiosities and I recommend him wholeheartedly if you decide to become a collector). While there, a Harry Potter first edition was purchased (and I tried on Ian Fleming’s smoking jacket) and I knew if I was going to seriously order anything, I’d call Jonathan.
Then, a little over a year ago, one of my favorite authors, Lawrence Block, decided to self-publish The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, the eleventh tale of his series character Bernie Rhodenbarr. He was doing a limited edition, signed and numbered, in hard cover. It wasn’t cheap, but I felt it was worth it so I went ahead and ordered it. I even got to pick my own number (I took my birthday, naturally). Early in 2014, a rare book store whose mailing list I regularly received was having a sale, there were some inexpensive first editions, including a limited signed and numbered deal from an author I’d been meaning to try out, so I placed an order.
Just before Christmas last year, I was finished with school work, a little bored and wandering through the Harrington website and ran across a first edition copy of John Wyndham‘s The Kraken Wakes. After some internal debate, I called Jonathan and ordered it. There was some confusion with getting the order out to me though, due to the shop moving and Jonathan opening his own place and for a while, I didn’t think I was going to get it.
So I did what any book collector would do: I found a different book – this time it was the first edition of the US paperback version of the same book (called Out of the Deeps in the US) only this one was Wyndham’s own copy. By the time I ordered it, things were sorted out with the original order and that was on its way as well.
When the paperback showed up, it was incredibly cool, but being an older book (published in 1953) it wasn’t in pristine condition. And this is when I realized I was a collector. The book needed to be protected. My first thought was to wrap it in plastic, but then I realized that wasn’t enough. It needed a clamshell.
A “clamshell,” in book collecting terms, is a hard case to protect the book. It completely encases the book, keeping it from light and dust and general shelf wear and tear. For me, I’ve got a couple of collectible paperbacks here but they’re fine on the shelf. This one, because it was expensive (for me), I wanted to protect it a bit. I started to price clamshells and figured I could get one for about $70. Not bad. But while I was searching, I found a site with step by step instructions on making your own. I had to try.
So earlier this week I went to the art supply place down the street, picked up what I needed (and what could be purchased here) and set about to be crafty.
I did it!
It’s not perfect, but it does the job and it looks great on the shelf and I know I can do it again. I know I will do it again. Because I’ll buy another book which needs to be protected. Because, well, I’m a book collector.