Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2020 Issue

David Lesser: The perspective of an experienced dealer who has earned his grey hair


I recently interviewed veteran bookseller David Lesser for his perspective on the trade during these difficult times.  He’s been through the wars.


[Q] By way of background, how did you find yourself in this predicament?


[A] I became a bookseller in 1989— part time, in order to finish up my duties as a lawyer and also to continue making a living. I had been a lawyer since 1967, and spent my early years in the legal services program. It was the late 1960’s and early 1970’s— important constitutional issues affecting low-income people dangled like low-hanging fruit, and I was lucky to have been able to pluck some from the trees. Later, after a few years of private practice, I lost my taste for adversarial proceedings, at least when litigation involved the clash of people rather than the clash of issues. Fortunately I had always been interested in American history, legal and otherwise. I was surprised one day to see an 1850’s Congressional speech about slavery--  common as dirt, of course, but I didn’t know that. It pretty much hooked me. On a two-week vacation in Peru I spent my down time reading some of Bill Reese’s catalogues I had taken with me. I brought forth my own first catalogue in the fall of 1989, and am now up to Number 176.


[Q] And, along the way you became a member of the ABAA and became a regular exhibitor at book fairs.


[A] I became a member of ABAA in late 1993, and made the rounds a few times of all the ABAA Fairs. I have exhibited at every New York fair since 1994; and continue to exhibit in Boston. I gave up the California fairs about ten years ago—costs compared with results were not encouraging.


[Q] Has your bookselling career been more Aretha Franklin’s ‘Hello Sunshine’ or Van Morrison’s ‘Days Like This’?  Or both?


[A] I have always been an optimist about our little corner of the planet. When I first entered it, people were complaining that the good old days had disappeared; but I was delighted with this new world, found many interesting items to buy and resell, and took great pleasure in book trips, particularly in the American South, which my wife and I would combine with sight-seeing and local music—blues, jazz, bluegrass. The world is constantly changing, and people’s interests respond to those changes, but our fascination with the printed and written word will remain forever. I suppose that the invention of moveable type caused some worry that interest in manuscripts would vanish; or that second and third editions would diminish the desire for first editions; or that paperback printings of ‘Moby Dick’ would collapse the market for early printings. None of these horribles has happened.


[Q] So the many lamentations that have been whispered and groaned over the decades about the rare book business have more related to the changing structure of the field rather than that interest in the material is declining.  In your experience the interest endures and see blue sky in the future?  That makes sense.


[A] It is certainly true that the internet has caused major changes in the book world. Standardization of markets results in lower prices and comparison shopping. That’s what markets are supposed to do. But people adapt as they always have—hence, the increased interest in one-of-a-kind items like manuscripts; and the recalibration of markets for relatively common material. Dealers, collectors, and institutions are smart enough to make the necessary changes. The underlying passion will remain.



That’s encouraging.


[Q] The structure of the field has always been changing.  Shops have been closing for decades, printed catalogues have been losing some of their cache.  Shows remain essential but, while Covid-19 is present, and it’s not safe to be there until the epidemic quiets or we have a vaccine, the future of rare books and paper is unknown.   All this not withstanding I feel confident in the future of the trade.  Do you agree?


 [A] Yes.  Pax tibi.


Thank you David.


And in the meantime you are working at your offices with 5,000 items on line with a few thousand yet to be described and offered. Let’s click here to take a look.


Welcome to Catalog 176.



Rare Book Monthly

  • <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>February 26, 2022</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 26:</b> ALLEN, Ethan. <i>A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity from the Time of his Being Taken by the British, near Montreal…,</i> Rare second edition, 1779. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 26:</b> CLEMENS, Samuel Langhorne ("Mark Twain"). <i>The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.</i> New York: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1885. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 26:</b> LANE, Edward William, translator. <i>Tales of a Thousand and One Nights; [or], The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.</i> London, 1838–1841. 32 parts in 33. $7,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 26:</b> GRANT, James, Lieut. <i>The Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery, performed in His Majesty's Vessel The Lady Nelson...</i> London, 1803. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <center><b>Case Antiques<br>Two-Day Winter Fine Art, Antique, and Jewelry Auction<br>January 29 & 30, 2022</b>
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Civil War Archive, including Hospital CDVs. $2,400 to $2,800.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> W.B. Gosnell's Civil War Era 34 Star Flag w/ Book on Western Expansion. $1,200 to $1,400.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> 15 Star Parade Flag and Envelope, Framed. $800 to $900.
    <center><b>Case Antiques<br>Two-Day Winter Fine Art, Antique, and Jewelry Auction<br>January 29 & 30, 2022</b>
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Partial Civil War Album, incl. Confederate Leaders. $800 to $900.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> CDV Album incl. Garfield, plus Framed CSA Currency. $800 to $900.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Two Geronimo Cabinet Cards, incl. St. Louis World's Fair Signed. $2,800 to $3,200.
    <center><b>Case Antiques<br>Two-Day Winter Fine Art, Antique, and Jewelry Auction<br>January 29 & 30, 2022</b>
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Dickens, Charles. <i>A Christmas Carol,</i> 1st Ed. 1843. $1,800 to $2,000.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Archive of Col. John Fite, CSA, POW Johnson's Island, first of two lots, 8 Items. $1,200 to $1,400.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Kentucky Confederate Call to Arms Broadside, 1862. $1,200 to $1,400.
    <center><b>Case Antiques<br>Two-Day Winter Fine Art, Antique, and Jewelry Auction<br>January 29 & 30, 2022</b>
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. <i>For Whom the Bell Tolls,</i> 1st Ed. $1,000 to $1,200.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> Autograph Album with Confederate Signatures, incl. Jeff Davis. $800 to $1,000.
    <b>Case Antiques, Jan. 29-30:</b> WWI Navy Posters plus Photo of USS John Hood, 3 pcs. $700 to $750.
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br> Fine Books and Manuscripts, Including Americana<br>Online<br>Now through January 25, 2022</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> Audubon, John James. The "Wild Turkey" manuscript — capturing one of the nation's most iconic symbols of unity. $250,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> (Flag) — Commemorative Thirteen-Star Flag. Pre-Civil War, Thirteen-Star Flag of the United States, from the collection of Charles Kuralt. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> Fitzgerald, F. Scott. <i>Tender is the Night</i>. First edition, presentation copy, and a former mystery. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> Audubon, John James. The "Wild Turkey" manuscript — capturing one of the nation's most iconic symbols of unity. $250,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> Salinger, J.D. <i>The Catcher in the Rye.</i> A strikingly fresh first edition of Salinger's essential novel. $20,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> Whitman, Walt. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> “America's second Declaration of Independence” — signed by Whitman. $150,000 to $200,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> [Dylan, Bob]. Some of the earliest known professional portraits. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Now to Jan. 25:</b> Y-Worth [Yarworth], William. <i>Cerevisiarii Comes: Or, the New and True Art of Brewing…</i> A rare and early English work on the art of brewing. $5,000 to $7,000.
  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>A Record Breaking Season</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> <i>The Book of Mormon,</b> first edition, Palmyra, NY, 1830. Sold Sept. 30 — $112,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Vincent Van Gogh, <i>Homme à la Pipe: Portrait du Docteur Gachet, Evening,</i> etching, 1890. Sold Nov. 2 — $161,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Edward Ruscha, <i>Stains,</i> title page, one of 70, signed, 1969. Sold Nov. 9 — $112,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> John James Audubon, <i>Carolina Parrot, Plate 26,</i> hand colored aquatint, 1828. Sold Dec.9 — $137,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Edmund Dulac, <i>The Snow Queen,</i> watercolor, gouache, pen & ink, 1910. Sold Dec. 16 — $125,000.

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