Where is the new book collector?
By Bruce McKinney
The book collector, who has ever been a solitary creature, is seemingly less visible and hence more difficult to find today. Who's looking? Every dealer on the planet is interested to know who they are. So too are the listing sites and various publications and services that cater to them. These collectors are elusive. You can almost believe they are a vanishing breed, drawn in a thousand directions, all of them away from the collecting of books, manuscripts and ephemera. Almost.
Recently I asked four gray-haired dealers for their perspective on this question. In this case the gray hair is a useful indicator of experience. They are John Windle, Jeffrey Thomas, John Crichton and Michael Good, San Francisco Bay Area book dealers with more than a hundred years of experience between them. Younger folks may not remember the pre-internet world clearly. These men remember it too well, the way we all recall touchdowns scored in high school and the soliloquy delivered in the college play, wistfully and perhaps a bit sanitized. The question I asked "Where is the new book collector" is a seemingly easy question but its one that in the answering tells us as much about the respondent as it does about the collector. The new collector is after all, almost mythical, sightings hardly more common than Loch Ness monsters. But it of course is not the new collector that is hard to find. It's new mintings of the old-style collector that are. Collectors are in fact everywhere and more plentiful than ever. Listing sites such as Abe, Zvab, Biblio, ILAB-ABAA and AE provide a steady flow of orders to sellers. And eBay gavels thousands of books everyday. Traditional auctions sell 200,000 documented lots annually and an untold number of undocumented ones as well. There are plenty of buyers. But these rank and file collectors buy carefully and curb their enthusiasm at the sight of three digits. They are omnipresent and of course very different from the old style collector. They are also the growing backbone of the rare book business. Think of them as Mr. Seventy-five dollars, Madame Cinq-Cent Francs, and [English] fifty-quid.
These dealers clearly miss the old-style collectors who had money, ambition to collect and trust in the dealer to act on their behalf. Such collectors, rare in any era, are increasingly collecting independently, buying more at auction and more often from a range of sellers rather than through a single dealer whose objectif primaire is to represent them. Finding such collectors much less building relationships with them, though never easy, has become very difficult. Even when face to face with such collectors, because encroaching may be poaching and book dealers live inside a world of rigidly protected relationships, they may not feel it appropriate to offer material though it's potentially beneficial to collectors. A collector thinks they are just buying a book while a dealer may see it differently.
So when I ask serious, long respected dealers "where is the new collector" it means something different to them than it does to me, a collector, since I first held an old [if not rare] book fifty years ago. To obtain these interviews I travel with Joe Belk [Cinematographer], an experienced cameraman who will capture the hours of tape we record. This is to be a first attempt on AE to integrate video with the printed word in an article in AE Monthly. Ashley E. Rodholm [film editor] , a senior at Berkeley is to handle the editing.