Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2004 Issue

Ken Leach Reflects On Over<br>35 Years Of Bookselling

Leach

Ken Leach has been selling books since the 1960s.


by Michael Stillman

If you ever have a chance to see one of Ken Leach's catalogues, it will quickly transport you back to an earlier era of book collecting. Ken Leach has been publishing his catalogues for thirty-five years now, and while the book trade today has little resemblance to what it was in 1970, his catalogues are virtually unchanged. They are not flashy. While one of Leach’s specialties over the years has been fine bindings, these catalogues are bound with paper and staples. His descriptions aren’t novels, but are straight to the point and often contain anecdotes gathered from his many years of experience. And while prices are no longer quite 1970, Ken Leach does not price his books for the 22nd century either. They represent solid values.

Bookselling is one of those livelihoods that people tend to stumble into, rather than prepare for. Ken Leach's first career was in the food business. By the 1960’s, he had risen to supervisor for a chain of A & W Root Beer stands in western New England, running from his home state of Vermont through Massachusetts and Connecticut. Summers are mild in this part of the country, but anyone who has lived here knows that root beer floats are a hard sell in winter. The stands would close down when the weather turned cold. Ken Leach had time on his hands, and looked for something that could provide some side income until spring returned. He began buying and selling various items, books, broadsides, and stamps, in his spare time.

Meanwhile, the competitive environment became more challenging for A & W. McDonalds moved into his territory and with better pay and shorter hours, Leach found it difficult to hold onto good store managers. And so, with $3,000 in cash and three boxes of books, he made the break to become a full-time bookseller in July of 1968. This has been his profession ever since, and at 77-years of age, Ken Leach has absolutely no thoughts of retirement.

There are two things you need to be able to do to be a successful bookseller: locate books to sell and find customers to buy them. Traversing the back roads of New England to locate stock became a full-time job. Leach worked seven days a week, putting in 80 hours through the 1970s, until marriage forced him to cut back. “I slowed down a little and just worked 60,” Leach comments. In those days, supply was plentiful, competitors few. He would hit the flea markets, antique shops, and country auctions looking for books. The antique shops would always have a few books but never knew how to sell them. “I’d go in and clean them out,” he noted. Often he would be the only bidder for books at auctions and would walk off with everything they had. Despite the long hours, Leach thoroughly enjoyed his new profession. “I didn’t have to put up with bosses,” he points out.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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