“If I hadn’t been a novelist I would have been a rare book dealer. You’re always on a treasure hunt.” – Graham Greene
Rare book dealers must lament the passing of an era. That is their job. There was a time, before the internet, when the mostly likely place to find a pristine first edition was wholly and completely unknown. Now it is on the other end of an endless network of cables, which span the globe. There is no Indiana Jones style collector running from country to country tracking down the first edition works of an equally mysterious author only recently dead. You don’t need a suit. No bowties required. You can cancel that ticket to Italy. Just open your internet browser.
Do you despair for the passing of the era? I don’t. I am a collector. I have a computer and a catalog of books instantly at my disposal. I order them online. I can collect in my pajamas, morning and night. It’s like living inside the bookstores, private collections, and all the auctions of the world, but with less paperwork for visas and fewer vaccinations.
Technology changes everything, but often when it does, the fantasy of the previous era grows as we mourn the lifestyle of the older generation. I wouldn’t prefer to be on a rotary phone making calls to stores, traveling to view the texts, and then marching off disappointed. I wouldn’t want to pay the related expenses for that sort of book search. And if we were being honest about the bygone era, I never would have anyway. I’m a book collector on a budget and I probably would have been on an even tighter budget if I’d been born 100 years ago.
Put down that tumbler of single malt whiskey. Drop the Cuban cigar. Book collecting was never about luxury and adventure for the average collector. Everyone knows that some collection items are expensive, but why does the tired stereotype cling to books? Not all Pokémon cards cost a small fortune. Why books? And artwork? It’s all part of the cult of incomprehensible genius. Collecting bottle caps, pez dispensers, ephemera lack this irrationally misplaced expectation for glamour.
New collectors can learn a lot from their contemporary counterparts who prefer mass-produced food containers to focus their hobbies on. Relax. Don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re collecting books to put together a set of meaningful titles based on research, an uncommon understanding of their history, and bit of your own passion. You preserve them. Good for you. It doesn’t matter if they cost $10 and stay valued at $10 for all eternity. While the rare book market can make you feel like you’re investing in stocks, that is only one aspect of the process. Collection development is the foundation and should be firmly built upon an endless meadow of research.
Our technology may have limited the hunt to a few warm days at estate sales or rummaging through un-cataloged old stores with dingy boxes and lice, but it hasn’t changed as much as some dealers would like to imagine. The essence of the hobby remains the same. And now is a great time to buy books. It may never be this easy again.