Dan Whitmore is a book dealer in southern California. He is 35 and never experienced the halcyon days of bookselling two decades ago. He was in high school then and would go on to Middlebury College for his undergraduate degree and then the University of Pennsylvania for a degree in law. He then worked as a lawyer for a year before reaching two decisions: 1. He didn’t want to spend his life in law and 2. He wanted instead to pursue his passion for collectible material in the books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera fields. And so he started 7 years ago.
His gatekeeper to the book trade was Kevin Johnson of Royal Books in Baltimore who he describes as both mentor and friend. Initially he came to books as a collector but in 2009 sold some books to/through Kevin. In 2010, leaving the law behind he set off to join the fraternity of rare book sellers. Goodbye business suits, hello road maps and sunglasses for the world of rare books he was entering is a world in transition. Thousands of dealers were rapidly closing shops and shifting to the duplex model of shows and online listings. In starting out he began in this new world, a world that David Lilburne recently described as “working harder to make less.”
If a bookseller reset his direction in life almost a decade ago his appreciation for books is longer held. He speaks of being an avid reader by ten and of collecting baseball cards and seashells instinctively. His first collectible book was a copy of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, a book he bought from a street vendor that he describes as “the book that bit me.” From that moment he began to see the world as a history of the printed word and the world of old and rare books as its Byzantium. He was hooked.
Today he speaks of the law as a career and bookselling as a life style but he also believes it has become his career. It’s an unusual career path but he points out he is hardly the first. “I think a couple dozen or so ABAA members are or have been lawyers.
Fast forward to 2016 he has now established his credentials. He’s been an ABAA member since 2014 and in 2016 is doing all three association sponsored shows.
The Challenges? Family first, then business.
He and his wife are expecting twins. They already have two girls. Their birth will be an exceptional moment and in the future an exceptional challenge. When I asked about the income to cover all the anticipated expenses he said, “I gauge my career as a bookseller against what I would have made as a law partner. It will be a challenge but I’m doing what I love and you can’t beat that.”
So what is he doing?
He’s using his working capital to buy individual items and collections. Many collecting fields have seen their fortunes decline. He mentions stamps, furniture and baseball cards and there are of course others. And collectible books too are in transition, scarcity a factor but relevance and importance increasingly determining.
And this is what Dan excels at: telling the story. Understanding the what’s and why’s of a collection is an art and, an important one. In the future the standards for carefully wrought collections will be higher because so much more will be known.
Dan now focuses on exceptional material and on telling their untold stories. He joined the field as it fell from grace. He will live long enough to see it rise again.
So if old booksellers remember when things were better, Dan will look ahead and in time see blue skies.
Whitmore Rare Books
4 East Holly Street
Pasadena, California 91103