by Mark Stueve, Bookseller, Old Erie Street Books
The size of one’s personal library is governed by two distinct factors: the largeness of one’s purse, and the size of one’s quarters. Add personal taste and a perfect trifecta of ideas comes to life.
Those of us living today who enjoy an unlimited path to owning a personal library should pause to acknowledge the rare combination of beauty and privilege that a personal library represents: a benchmark or cultural marker of societies nod towards true civilization. “Size counts.” J.P. Morgan built a lasting monument to his good taste by means of turning a part of his fortune into a world class treasurehouse library. He used his fine education and fat wallet to express his aesthetic bibliophilic tastes for all of us to enjoy to this very day. Presidents, kings, and commoners alike all share this desire to collect and leave testimony of an examined bookish life. In this modern world we are offered this opportunity whether we are white-collar or blue-collar workers. Finding joy in keeping a personal library is an idea well-established in a post-agrarian society. Prior to this people had to dedicate most of their time to hard work and survival. As I said we need to count our blessings and embrace our unique liberty to own a personal library.
A well-selected small shelf of books is catnip for the book seller and caviar for the collector. I hold the belief that a small shelf of well selected books numbering from one to five hundred, trumps a large ambitious accumulation of books by a ravenous collector, or bibliophile with an obsessive compulsive disorder. Many a modern small home or apartment holds a shelf of books displayed with pride and prominence, sometimes accompanied with complimentary objects to enhance such as an autographed photograph, print, or even a bookpress or other historic item to lend grace.
Books as Objects. In this realm possibilities abound. A brief, and albeit limited, historical tour of tastes would include collections of all variety of leather bindings by century and style. Miniature books. Autographed, inscribed, and association copies. Books containing original art, or colour process prints. Fore-edge paintings. Cartography or calligraphic works. These represent some of the various physical objects containing merit and owing an active international auction market as measure of fair market value documented for centuries to this very day. As the old saying goes: “The world’s your oyster.”
Books as Subjects. The other side of collecting a small shelf of books is to own an unique library of books and materials gathered by subject, where the physical form is more of a mass-produced nature and they might actually be read and enjoyed. In this realm, author and subject collections defined by bibliography and study can be interesting, exciting to own, and great to consume. Hardcover or paperback. First editions or later printings. Doves Press or Hallmark books. Thoreau, Hemingway, Orwell, or a shelf of books relating to automobile racing all seem fair game. This is a modern world, accrued education and time restraints play important factors in our busy lives. I have attempted to learn in my simple mind to not judge others’ tastes lest they judge mine. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and popular culture is in the public mind of today.
A few suggestions that might help in obtaining your own small shelf of books:
- Eat smaller portions. Tame your passion for the physical object by turning it into a quest for specific subject areas and ideas that fit your temperament, budget, and the size of your domicile.
- As in fishing, keep a tight line. Refine and preen your small shelf of books constantly by upgrading condition, edition, and the significant anomaly or “plus copy” that speaks to you.
- Skip lunch. Save for that special item. Take a bus to work instead of driving. Carpool. Scale down your vacation plans. The money you save by skipping dessert can go into your fund to purchase the book that fits your perfect shelf flavor instead.
- Keep it fresh. During a lifetime our tastes change, and it is no surprise that our collecting habits change as well. “Out with the old, in with the new.” Sell or trade your old passion for a new one if the time has arrived.
- Read John Carter’s seminal work on book collecting, Taste and Technique In Book Collecting, or find a bibliography that fits your current flavor or fashion.
- Read again. If you question why you are spending so much time on your collecting passion or if your passion is flagging try a read at Wolf Mankowitz’s Make Me An Offer, or Charles P. Everitt’s Adventures of A Treasure Hunter: A Rare Bookman in Search of American History as anecdote. Mankowitz deals with hunting and haggling for a rare piece of pottery; it is a great read concerning the game of hoops and ladders we play to obtain our precious objects. The esteemed Mr. Everitt expresses the passion, joys and rewards of hunting down printed Americana during the twentieth century, though I still get that same feeling when out hunting about for a title to add to my personal small shelf of books.
Mark Stueve is owner of Old Erie Street Bookstore, a former open shop operating since 1979. You can browse their books on Biblio here.