Books

ANTIQUARIAN BOOK TRADERS AND THE TIES THAT BIND

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, Dec. 10, 1995; Lifestyle section, p. G-4.

By Harry Kloman

The mistake was staggering by antiquarian booksellers standards. Dave Richards had thought this copy of "The Bridges of Madison County" was a first edition and priced it accordingly: $250.

But on closer inspection, he found the tiny "40" on the book's copyright page. His "first edition" was actually a 40th printing (out of a total so far of 65).

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He has had to adjust his cost to the much more down-to-earth amount of $5. The price of his miscalculation is modest, however: he had paid $16 for the book when buying it from a dealer at an antique mall in Ohio.

Books are an unusual kind of antique. If you collect, say, antique lamps, you probably buy a piece both for its artistry and its function. But a book is a collection of words, presumably words that a reader values for very personal reasons.

Why, then, would someone pay tens, hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a copy of an antiquarian book when they could read the same words in a $5 paperback?

"Well, it makes sense to me," Beverly Townsend says with a chuckle. She and her husband, Neil, own Townsend Booksellers, an antiquarian shop in Oakland, and they've sold their share of pricey books.

John Schulman, who owns Caliban Book Shop, another Oakland antiquarian store, recently paid $200 for a first edition of William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!" He now has it priced at $375.

"I don't understand it," Schulman says with a grin. "There's something about the original edition of a book. It's holding not only a piece of history, but of something that strikes a chord with you in particular."

But not all antiquarians get so misty-eyed about their pages. Edward Gelblum, a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, also owns City Books, a large antiquarian shop on the South Side.

"It's a very human thing, I suppose," Gelblum says, "but I'm not sure it's very rational. Most of the books I buy are things I use."

Chapter One

If antiquarians share one thing, it's an essential love of books. Usually it's the words they love, but sometimes it's the object itself. This is the realm where book-loving can get very touchy-feely.

"It came from reading," Schulman says of his lifelong love, "but also from the physical appearance of books. I like the binding and the feel of paper and all that."

"Booksellers have to be readers," says Richards, the child of a working- class family in which he was not encouraged to read. "I've been reading since I was in fourth grade. There were no books in the house before I started bringing them in."

Richards, who works full time as a hospital lab manager, started his book trade 18 years ago, when he and his wife bought 20 boxes of books while shopping for antique furniture. A few years after that, he converted the garage of his Brookline home into hi s closed shop, where he keeps most of his 12,000 volumes, exhibiting some at an antiques mall in Ohio, but doing most of his business through word of mouth and calls from book hunters.

Schulman volunteered to work at an antiquarian shop in Oakland when he was 12, and as a student at Pitt he supported himself by selling books out of his apartment. He even issued catalogs, which helped him develop a mailing list, and one big sale bought him a summer vacation in Europe. Finally, in 1991, he turned his fascination into his profession at Caliban Book Shop, 416 S. Craig St. in Oakland.

Later that year, just around the corner, Beverly and Neil Townsend opened their shop at 4612 Henry St. They moved to Pittsburgh from Northern California for the sole purpose of beginning an antiquarian book business, something they had pursued for several years out of their California home while working at other jobs.

The Marketplace

Now don't misunderstand: Not every used book is "antiquarian," nor is every used-book shop. Antiquarian books are not all first editions. And not all antiquarian books go for triple-digit sums.

Gelblum notes that 95 percent of all books ever published are now out of print. So someone who wants to read or own an older book on, say, African art or Chinese history, will probably have to find it in a shop that sells used books.

Most first editions are easy to identify: The publishers say so on the copyright page. But some publishers use more complicated methods of noting first editions, which require an expert to decipher.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the book will be expensive, and most antiquarians can't make a living off the big sale. Says Neil Townsend: "We run a book store, not a museum. We try to price things in a range where it's an attractive purchase for some one."

A convention of law librarians recently "cleaned out" the Townsends' section of law books, and Gelblum says art books are a big seller at City Books. These specialty sections often do well for antiquarians, who also sell through catalogs, national book se arches and even a wide variety of web pages available over the Internet.

Pricing old books has a subjective element to it. But the conscientious antiquarian keeps a host of reference volumes that list generally agreed-upon market prices.

Richards' biggest sale was of a 1611 first edition of a volume of poems by John Donne -- a tome so rare that his reference books didn't even list market value. He purchased it for $600 and ultimately sold it at Sotheby's auction house in England for $3,200.

And when antiquarians go to a person's home to make an offer on a collection, they take their ethics with them.

Says Neil Townsend, "I don't try to sneak around and buy a book for a dollar that I know I can sell for a hundred dollars. ... Your reputation as an honest merchant is valuable to the continued success of your business." Dealers do make exceptions when dealing with other professionals in the field.

His competitors say much the same thing. They also agree antiquarians can afford to pay someone no more than 30 percent to 60 percent of the price they believe they can get for a particular book.

Most antiquarians in Pittsburgh do their business from people who browse their shop and buy books in the $10 to $25 range. These are what Schulman calls "bread-and-butter books," a term he learned from Esther Tucker, one of the deans of local antiquarian bookselling, whose shop, The Tuckers, at 2236 Murray Ave., has been a fixture in Squirrel Hill for 22 years.

The sole exception may be Schoyer's Books, which targets a very specific market and does most of its business through catalogs and sales to out-of-town collectors. The shop at 1404 S. Negley Ave., Squirrel Hill, is one of the city's oldest, and Donnis de Camp and Marc Selvaggio have owned and operated it for the past 10 of its 43 years. Schoyer's deals mostly in books about travel, history, Americana and the world.

A few months ago, de Camp sold some books on Greek Americans to a man in Greece, books on Asia to a customer in Singapore, and books on 19th- and early 20th-century Palestine went to the United Nations.

"In a sense," de Camp says, "we're really selling access to more difficult-to-obtain information."

The Collectors

Like most college students, Jack Ewing read William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!" because he more or less had to. But that was in 1962, as part of his entrance requirement to Allegheny College. It also was hundreds of Faulkner books and thousands of dollars ago.

Ewing, who became a high school English teacher, now has a Faulkner collection of about 900 pieces, many of them articles and photographs. The ''heart and soul" of the collection, his first editions, numbers 75 to 100 books, one of which is valued at $5,0 00.

Why buy such costly books when cheap paperbacks contain the same words? Ewing explains: "It's as close as you can get to the genesis of the work. It's the feel of the paper, the feel of the book, the vintage cover on it that speaks of age and endurance an d all those Faulknerian things."

The competitive marketplace is something Nicholas Lane doesn't have to worry about much. He collects travel guide books, for which there's no well- defined market, which means he finds a lot of bargains. But many of his books -- more than 2,000 in all -- are nonetheless unique, which can't be said of books by Faulkner, no matter how rare the particular edition.

For example: On a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, he paid 10,000 rubles -- about $3 -- for an English-language guide to the Caucasus, published in the 1930s. When he shows it to dealers, their eyes widened with envy. It's possibly the only extant copy of the book and certainly the one of its kind.

"These odd little guides to odd little places produce a wealth of information and nostalgia, a description of a way of life that's gone," says Lane, a Point Breeze resident and a native of England, who manages real estate for a living. "They're ... the ki nd of thing that makes history come alive."

Schulman, thebookseller, calls collecting "a psychological pleasure that has to be sated again and again." But he also sees it as a phenomenon of the fading millennium.

"It has something to do with the cult of authenticity in the 20th century," Schulman says. "In a world in which everything is mediated by the media, and where you have reproductions of everything, holding the original of something has more and more impact."