An Old Man in a New World – recounting my experience with rare books

- by Bruce E. McKinney

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Twenty years building businesses

It was a beleaguered palace, the library a four story cathedral-like space shrouded in darkness save for light coming in through windows high on the west wall, the beams illuminating the plentiful swirling dust.  I looked for local material, found a shelf and bought it.  The rest was early printed and manuscript material and I found I couldn’t touch it.  It was obviously valuable, the caretaker somehow a fraud.

In those years it was easy to buy and sell old books and I was a dealer of sorts.  Prices to buy were in quarters and selling prices in dollars.  That year, while earning $7,500 selling advertising I made $2,200 selling old books.

And then in 1971 this stage ended. I became a publisher, organizing a company, securing investments and a line of credit so to publish the Orange County Free Press, 2 years later selling it to a company associated with American Greeting in Cleveland.  Flush with success and 27 I wouldn’t again focus on books until I was 45.  In the ensuing years I built a succession of businesses in Taiwan and the United States and sold each, retiring in 1990.

Collecting at the highest levels

That year my wife Jenny and I, now a family of four, moved from Taipei to the United States and for 5 years lived in Florida.   There I returned to old books, this time as a collector, acquiring material relating to the new world printed before 1625.  We spent summers in Europe and I regularly visited many of Europe’s storied dealers.  To structure this nascent collection I relied on Servies’s Bibliography of Florida volume 1. In 1995 we moved on to San Francisco and I to a new collection, the American West.  Both collections were built with the help and advice of Bill Reese.

During that decade I acquired many of the essential bibliographies and became an increasingly self-directed collector.  In returning to old and rare material I expected it would be profitable but found the mark-ups substantial and the market murky.  After 1996, to lower my costs, I bought primarily at auction and in 2002 began the online database of auction records that continues today - the Americana Exchange.  I was then an ABPC subscriber, wanted more information and thought others might as well.  The thinking was straightforward.  The rare book field was shrouded but virtually all-underlying auction data could be acquired.   Uncovering all documented auctions worldwide with complete lot descriptions, unsold lots, consignor and buyer names in my view would eventually be important.  In the mid-1990s I completed my father’s collection of American commemorative stamps and in September 2002 sold it at auction at Shreves to raise the original funding for AE. The site was expected to focus on Americana but within two years became an effort to capture all auctions worldwide, outcomes, consignors and buyers names, initially back to 1980, currently back to 1875 and in time 1850.

By 2005 AE had become the site it is today; one portion auction, dealer and bibliographic records, one part upcoming auction search, one part AE Monthly, and one part tools for self-directed buyers and sellers.  In 2007 the AED passed 1.5 million records.