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An interview with Jeff Weber Rare Books

Biblio checks in with Jeff Weber Rare Books to learn more about their book business, collecting interests and more! To view and shop their inventory, click here.


When did you get started in bookselling?

I started bookselling with William P. Wreden in Palo Alto, California, in 1977 and again in 1978, before and after going to get a masters degree in library science from Indiana University. After graduating in Aug 1978 I took a position at Zeitlin & Ver Brugge Booksellers, Los Angeles, starting in Nov. 1978, staying as rare bookseller till the end of 1986.


What drew you to bookselling?

As a third generation bookman, the origins must come from my grandfather Carl Jefferson Weber, Robert professor of English literature at Colby College and a Rhodes Scholar (1914-17), also serving as Colby's first rare book library curator and starting the Colby Library Quarterly in 1943. My father, David Carter Weber, went to Harvard and Columbia Universities for 2 master degrees in history and librarianship, taking his first professional position at Harvard. From there he was hired at Stanford University (1961), becoming director in 1969 and retired in 1990. As a boy I worked in various jobs, the most significant being the Palo Alto Times where I delivered newspapers for many years, but building up my own route, thus my introduction to the business world. I also worked moving books at Stanford's Branner Earth Science Library and the Lane Medical Library. As an undergraduate at UCLA I worked at the Biomedical Library for four years. But my eye had noticed the design of old books from my father's library. His father was a Thomas Hardy scholar and my father collected and read Joseph Conrad. Those books were on our shelves at Stanford. My own interests were in science fiction and comic books. With a steady income I collected comics, then books. On meeting Mahshid Essalat from Iran, at UCLA, we dated, fell in love, but were together for just 6 months I think in 1976. Without her around (she returned to Iran) I majored in Middle Eastern history (Persia) and started collecting Persian literature in translation. This opened a door to appreciating earlier books and gave me a specific subject to search in any bookstore I could find. I bought books like this from a store in Dublin when visiting, ordering another from India, buying a broken title from the early 19th century from Wreden's shop, etc. But I was introduced to serious bookselling when I came to Zeitlin's bookshop in 1978.


Did you have any mentors in becoming a bookseller?

Jake Zeitlin was clearly my mentor as a bookseller. My father was a very hard worker and a life-long reader (he still is). Jake was a senior statesman, a pioneer in specializing in the history of science and medicine in the US, and he was a remarkable writer, a gifted poet, and he appreciated art his whole life. What I noted early on was the Jake, with little education, was nonetheless a true professional: he wrote beautifully and his correspondence was nothing short of a fully versed and educated man. He, like many booksellers, reap the fruits of a lifetime of learning. Every book and every customer represents a new experience. Jake's life was full of interesting people, places and books. I learned much more about books in his store, much more than library school or any other exposure. At his store an employee could catalog, buy, sell, travel, and thus learn more aspects of the trade than is normal in any bookstore situation. It wasn't perfect as the store was a mix of rare and secondhand books, the staff was eccentric, the management style was often frustrating, there was much to learn with a diverse group of people, often grasping for a commission that was memorably taken away, but in the end I am often recalling how what I work with now has its roots with my days at Zeitlin's. I am not the same type of store, but many of the books I handle would be exactly like those at Zeitlin & Ver Brugge. My cataloguing style is learned from there, but advancing things further, never looking to remake the past, but to advance with more recent scholarship. I often think of the contrasts of bookselling then (pre-1986) and now and how the years of change mark our history today whereas then it felt like the system employed at Zeitlin or Wreden was a past that is missed in bookselling today. There is far less interaction with clients, less activity, less personal. Thus we miss a lot with the computerization of our world.


What are your specialties as a dealer?

I have cultivated the history of science and medicine primarily. In addition I have delved into the pleasures of whatever comes my way, be that in bibliography, fine printing, early printed books, travels, even literature and manuscripts, etc. Amazingly I re-met Mahshid in 2010 and we married, and thus I restarted my interest in Persian history and literature. Thus I now have a subspecialty in that rewarding area, bringing to my stock many more unusual books or manuscripts.


What's the most amazing book you've ever sold?

So many ... what comes to mind: a collection of 77 letters of John Steinbeck, a first edition of Vesalius' Fabrica, a first edition of the exquisitely rare Tagliacozzi, etc. What I most identify myself with, however, are the people whose collections I have bought, thus it has been a long string of scholars and collectors whose libraries have become a part of my history and experience. I cherish so many. All are worth remembering. Among the earliest were Robert Moes, a sweet-hearted physician whose collection is at the University of Nebraska, a crotchety Dr. Edgar Mauer, who was devoted to the Los Angeles County Medical Library rare book collection (something I later appraised), Dr. Marvin Frielich, who had wonderful books in various fields. Later on Dr. Leslie Orgel (Salk Institute) became a steady contributor to my inventory. Dr. Jerome Klingbeil (1918-1988), wine connoisseur, collector extraordinaire, his love of books in the history of plastic surgery was where the Tagliacozzi came from. Dr. Norman Horowitz (1915-2005) of Cal Tech Biology & Genetics studies was another. Dr. Abraham Pais (1918-2000), a leader in the history of physics at Rockefeller University was a special project. Dr. Fritz Strauss had many fine books in microscopy and the plague. This is just a start of many more.


What is your favorite part of being a bookseller?

The fun of the hunt and finding a wonderful item is the common answer here. A simple phone call, for example, becomes the reason behind buying a civil war amputation manual printed in the south and with it came a Confederate sword and a tintype photograph of its owner. In another case an e-mail bookselling brochure listing two books of Ms C.B. Currie resulted in my buying something that might not have been available for even 1 hour longer. A trade catalogue from Kentucky sent to me back in the 1980s was where I noticed a copy of Alfred Russel Wallace's Palm trees of the Amazon in the extremely rare first edition - bought it and had many subsequent orders. I found a copy of Hardy's The Trumpet-Major, a triple decker first edition, quite rare - bought it & sold. Today the fun is often in the story-telling, the research behind finding something with a wonderful provenance, bringing old books alive. I often note how old books are still very much a part of today's scholarship. Thus despite any view of the death of books, I instead see a connection of all books. For example, without religion as a field, science is less or never challenged, and the reverse, and thus both fields play off each other over the centuries. Darwin's Origin is a supreme statement of science and a conflicted sense of what is accepted in religion and what is thought true in man's history. All of it keep evolving in a truer sense of the word.


Do you have an open storefront or have you in the past?

The Wreden and Zeitlin stores were my past and they probably would not be the same today if they were still around. Nothing is forever and I have managed my business from home ever since I started in 1986. Today's world makes it very difficult for a store and I certainly admire any entrepreneurs' work to tend a store and its needs these days. This is not a life of leisure, rather one works all the time and any reward is often fleeting as there is always another task ahead.


If so, do/did you have any bookstore pets?

A shop cat was our Elfie, once photographed sitting on a pile of books. This was my parent's cat and much loved. But in a store Elfie was a distraction. The challenge was to find her in the stacks ... her favorite perch was on top of bookcases, or wandering into any newly opened door or even the shop safe!


What is the funniest / strangest / scariest thing that ever happened in your store?

Not my thing ... but to characterize my store early on, I had the pleasure of working at home and having my two beautiful children, Carl & Amy, growing up 'in' the store. Thus every afternoon I'd pick them up from school, enjoy seeing them grow. Those were memorable times. They are now grown, married and going their own directions in life.


What is your favorite bookshop (other than your own)?

When it was open Dawson's Book Shop in Los Angeles was my favorite. In London it is Maggs, though I have seldom visited. I still wonder if that shop in Dublin I visited in ca. 1976, if it is still there or if I might find something in travels elsewhere.


What do you personally like to read? Collect?

Of late I have read many biographies of Iranian ex-patriots who have added much to the literature since 1979. In the past decades I have research a lot on the history of fore-edge painting. My grandfather Carl J. Weber wrote two books about this topic, the first in 1949 and the second edition in 1966. I wrote a book on John T. Beer, a British book collector, painter, haberdashery store owner, and poet, but he was the first person to paint on books in his own library and the first to sign his name on each fore-edge painting he made. Then in 2010 I issued a substantial book on all known fore-edge painting artists or binders. This really spoke to my interest in books as artifacts, or thinking of archeological specimens - I really see the physical book as an object that carries its personal history in the making of the book, its owners, its travels from one person or library to another. The physical book is thus precious in a way that no e-book will ever be.


What's your favorite book you personally own? Would you sell it, if the price were right?

Must be the copy number 1 of my own book, The Annotated Dictionary of Fore-edge Painting Artists & Binders, 2010, which I had specially bound in a deluxe manner, had a fore-edge painting applied by Clare Brooksbank, a scene from Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" as painted originally by Frank Dicksee, an extremely romantic scene of a maiden on horseback with her knight in shining armor - cliché maybe, but representing my love for my wife Mahshid. Priceless.


What one book would you buy if price were no object?

Either Newton's Principia, 1687, or Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, 1543. But then money is no object!


If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring three books, what would they be?

I'd bring some blank paper to write my biography with Mahshid and our history together, there is never enough time for this to be done. I have so many writing projects in mind ... But I always enjoyed reading Thomas Hardy's novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure), Tolkein's Lord of the Rings was a 'can't put it down' read, maybe a great choice would be Richard Burton's Arabian Nights, or better his Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah.