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Building a book collection, one treasured volume at a time

By Michael Dirda


 

The other day a friend casually remarked that most of the books in what might be called my library—if I had a much bigger house—probably came to me as freebies. I answered that that wasn’t true at all, that perhaps 10 percent had originated as review copies. In fact, just this morning, while groggily sipping my morning coffee, I scanned the nearest bookcase—built by me some 30 years ago—and realized that on its six shelves, containing perhaps 150 books, only four of them weren’t purchased with my cold hard credit card.

Which ones, you wonder? The first four volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin series. In fact, Norton sent me its reprinted uniform set, back when I reviewed The Commodore. (That novel, by the way, mentions a small sailing vessel called The Ringle, its name immortalizing Ken Ringle, a former Washington Post colleague and ardent sailor, who told O’Brian about Chesapeake Bay skipjacks.) The subsequent 15 volumes are in storage. To display them all would take too much space, so I just keep out the early ones, against the day I might want to reimmerse myself in the salty waters of the Aubrey-Maturin adventures.

Before I came to Washington, I could fit all my books—and all my clothes, indeed everything I then owned—into a 1966 fire-engine red Chevy Impala. But once I arrived in our nation’s capital, I quickly discovered that the place bulged with secondhand books. My friend David Streitfeld, now with The New York Times, and I once visited every used bookstore in the metro area as part of a story for the Washington Post’s weekend section. There were something like 60 all told. On top of this, there were gigantic annual book sales—Vassar, Brandeis, and Stone Ridge, in particular—and church sales and antiquarian book fairs and thrift shops and even people selling old books from blankets on the sidewalk. I once bought some novels by Carl Van Vechten from just such a guy—all the books he displayed were by authors whose names began with V. He told me that when Loudermilk’s bookstore closed down, the fiction was auctioned off by letter and the hot letters—F and W, for instance—were out of his price range.

Before long, I was hammering together one wooden bookcase after another. Two years after I got to D.C. my Macomb House apartment was lined with books, floor to ceiling. At least everything was on a shelf, which is more than I can say today.

In those pre-Internet days, each week the postman would deliver one or two book catalogues. Mail-order houses, specialty dealers, remainder outlets, the Strand in New York—once you were on the mailing lists, many happy evenings could be spent sipping a glass of wine and checking off the titles of the books you’d like to buy, if only you had a bit more money. At some point, I even subscribed to AB Bookman’s Weekly, the journal of the secondhand trade, each issue proffering an article or two, a bit of publishing news, ads from dealers around the country highlighting new acquisitions, and, not least, a couple of dozen pages devoted to Books Wanted and Books for Sale.

Mostly I just daydreamed over its out-of-reach treasures. One fateful day, however, I finally screwed up my courage and actually ordered a collection of stories from the bookseller (and sf/fantasy author) Nelson Bond: it was Brass Knuckles, by Frank Gruber. Gruber was one of the 1930s Black Mask boys; his memoir The Pulp Jungle is fairly well known. Along with his hard-boiled fiction, though, he also produced a lighthearted series about Oliver Quade, a reference-book salesman who had memorized the encyclopedia and used his arcane knowledge to solve crimes. I’d read one or two of these Human Encyclopedia stories as a boy and loved them. Brass Knuckles collects them all and whatever I paid, it was cash well spent.

Soon I was buying books pretty readily, though I was still my mother’s son: a bargain-hunter. Then one day a catalogue arrived featuring a coveted title priced at the outrageous sum of $15. It was a first edition of Randall Jarrell’s A Sad Heart at the Supermarket. Back at college I had read to pieces my paperback of Jarrell’s famous collection Poetry and the Age. This was his second book of essays, one that had never been issued in softcover. Naturally, I had to have it, so I swallowed hard, sent Quill and Brush a check, and received back a small substantial package. When I finally made my way through multiple layers of padding and plastic wrap, I noticed that my new treasure’s dj was encased in some kind of protective cellophane or mylar. I soon learned that dust jackets, being fragile and susceptible to tears, needed their own jackets.

I read the Jarrell almost immediately—many of its pages lament the decline of reading—and the following weekend decided to visit Quill and Brush, then in Olney, Maryland. Its genial owners, Allen and Pat Ahearn, told me how they had begun acquiring firsts back in their college days at the University of Maryland, eventually opening this shop. Allen worked at the Pentagon from Monday through Friday; Pat took care of their four kids; together they sold books on weekends, specializing in literary first editions. It was Allen who informed me that there were three important points to remember when buying a collectible book: condition, condition, condition.

Any wise collector who lives by that mantra will likely end up with a valuable library. But who can love and then be wise? Looking around this house, I seem to have opted for quantity over quality. Yet I should have known better, given that I eventually worked for Allen and Pat. When Quill and Brush moved to Bethesda, the Ahearns wanted to stay open at least one weekday evening, but who would mind the store? Why, who better than that nice young man with such a passion for books? So for six months, on Thursday from 6 till 9, I dusted the bookcases, filled a few back orders, occasionally even sold something. Naturally, I worked for trade-credit and when traffic was slow, which it usually was, took to wandering among the shelves, pulling out titles, and slowly building up an understanding of “values.”

Thus, when one day in another bookstore I spotted a first of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in a fine dust jacket and priced at $50, I didn’t hesitate to plunk down what was for me an ungodly sum. I knew the book was worth at least 10 times that. Today it would sell for several thousand dollars.

I know that because I just checked on AbeBooks. Since the rise of the Internet and sites like Abe and AddALL, book bargains are much harder to find, while titles once thought scarce have turned out to be fairly plentiful. Now, you can easily acquire almost anything—if you have the funds—with just a keystroke. But where’s the fun of that? Where’s the serendipity? The thrill of the hunt? As Terry Belanger, the retired head of Charlottesville’s Rare Book School, ruefully remarked: that’s not collecting, that’s shopping.

Well, yes and no. These days I tend to buy rather arcane books, usually older works of popular fiction from roughly 1870 to 1935. In the past I might have had to spend years searching for those titles in brick-and-mortar shops or hoped that someone would respond to my “Books Wanted” ad in AB Bookman’s Weekly. But in 2012 I can acquire what I need for various projects with relative ease and speed. Even Quill and Brush—relocated to the Ahearns’ home—now sells mainly online and through catalogues, only being open to the public by special arrangement.

What’s more, most of their firsts now start at $100. One thing never does change: the books you really covet always cost more than you want to pay for them. Still, as A. Edward Newton remarked decades ago, book collectors never regret their extravagances, only their economies.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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