An Open Letter To Graduating English Majors

Graduation Cap

It’s June, season of commencements — the start of summer, the start of sunshine, and, if you are graduating from college, the start of the rest of your life. I remember when I completed my English degree, way back in the 20th century. Toward the end of the school year, employment recruiters came on campus. Many of my business major and engineering major friends knew where they would commence with their post-college careers even before graduation was at hand.

We English majors, though, we were not usually so definitive in our career plans. Editing the literary magazine or writing for the school paper was not likely to make an employer think you could be the next designer of yet another, smaller computer chip in furtherance of Moore’s Law. While an English major might do well with creative writing, he probably didn’t understand a thing about creative accounting. With a good working knowledge of Medieval Literature and fairly decent writing and analytical skills, we English majors were not really of use in the business world beyond writing advertising copy or technical manuals. No one recruited us.

Well, English majors, I’m here to tell you that although you probably won’t see us coming to recruit you at your local college campus: Antiquarian booksellers want you!

That’s right. There are simply not enough antiquarian booksellers, and antiquarian booksellers under age 40 are about as rare as Gutenberg Bible. That’s because, if you’re like me, you love books, but you simply may not know about the world of antiquarian books. Yes, I was an English major. I worked for a book store, a book publisher, and my university’s library during college, yet I was completely unaware of the existence of antiquarian books, which, let’s face it, are not often on display in publicly accessible places. If you don’t see them, you might not know they exist; or, if you know they exist but you don’t see them, you might not understand what’s so great about old books.

When you get involved with antiquarian books, you get involved with much more than a book. You learn about history, bibliography, and the importance of preserving primary sources. If you’ve seen movies like National Treasure, then you’ll already know that the occasional car chase and explosion will be a part of your career, too.

When I discovered the world of book collecting and antiquarian bookselling some years after college, I wondered why I had never known that antiquarian bookselling existed as a career.

Is antiquarian bookselling right for you? As the bibliophile John Hill Burton once said of antiquarian booksellers, “It is, as you will observe, the general ambition of the class to find value where there seems to be none, and this develops a skill and subtlety, enabling the operator, in the midst of a heap of rubbish, to put his finger on those things which have in them the latent capacity to become valuable and curios.” That description pretty much sums it up.

If you think antiquarian bookselling might be right for you, here are a few questions you might ask yourself: Do you like books? Are you especially in love with the physical beauty of old books? Do you revel in the arcane information to be found in some old tomes? Do you possess at least a few rudimentary business skills? Do you love to learn? Do you love to sell? Do you believe in yourself enough to build your own business even if no corporate recruiters came knocking at your door? Do you prefer autonomous self-direction over instructions handed down from a boss? Can you work alone, content with your books and yourself? Can you deal with the public, your customers? Can you withstand the physical injury of the occasional collapsing bookcase and numerous paper cuts without the benefit of a good workers’ comp program?

Does this describe you? If so, put down your Kindle and check out the world of antiquarian books.

Chris Lowenstein
Book Hunter’s Holiday
3182 Campus Drive #205
San Mateo, CA 94403
(415) 307-1046
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4 thoughts on “An Open Letter To Graduating English Majors”

  1. Pingback: BookStream » Calling all new graduates with degrees in English!
  2. Although I am not an English major, I feel like my future is quite uncertain as well. I just graduated with a Business Management degree and I’m not sure where to go with it. Although I have quite a few options, there’s no exact job that’s made for my degree. Maybe Antiquarian booksellers wants me too?! 😉

  3. This sounds like something I would love. I recently attended and antiquarian book sale. How do I get started?

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