While extraordinary appraising skills may be his most notable attribute, there is much more to Kenneth Gloss and his Brattle Book Shop. Brattle Book is something of an institution in Boston, with its $1, $3 and $5 tables. Of course there are much more expensive books available if you are so inclined. He describes the Brattle Book Shop as the oldest continuously operating bookstore in America. It traces its roots back to the 1820’s, while his family’s involvement goes back over 50 years. It was 1949 when his father bought the store as it was about to go under. Over the years, it has changed locations numerous times. Mr. Gloss points out that Brattle Street, for which the store is named, no longer exists. It’s now covered by Boston’s Government Center.
Ken Gloss came to work full time in the store in 1973 after earning a degree in chemistry. He wanted to take a year off from his studies. Instead, he stayed. However, he doesn’t consider the chemistry degree a waste. He needed something to fall back on just in case. Small family businesses can be trying. He was “fired” numerous times. But, Ken Gloss stuck it out, and books are now at the foundation of his life.
While thousands of books are sold through the storefront, particularly less expensive volumes, Mr. Gloss also sells very valuable titles through his contacts or other dealers. He is always on the lookout for supply. Mr. Gloss explains that there are two main reasons why a collection is sold. One is that the owner is getting older and moving to a smaller house. He or she needs to downsize. The other is that the collector has died and the estate is dispersing the collection. Interestingly, he says, the most important question for most people selling a collection is not how much money they will receive. As long as the price is fair, that’s satisfactory. What they really want to know is “are you going to take it all?” What they most want is someone who will take everything away, not just the best titles and leave them with the rest.
The reason Ken Gloss can buy so many complete collections where other booksellers are reluctant is that he is a generalist. He will buy just about anything, though he may pass niche books on to specialists for resale. Amazingly, his knowledge of books and ability to appraise spreads to almost all types of books. Surprisingly, Gloss is not a collector himself. His wife collects books on jazz. His father, he recalls, was an “accumulator,” buying three or four books a day for years. “You can imagine what happens with that,” he laughs. Still, it seems to be more the hunt then actually possessing the books that most intrigues Ken Gloss.
Asked about some of his more notable, surprising finds, Mr. Gloss says about a month ago he was doing a show when a woman brought in a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that had been left behind by a previous tenant. It turns out that tenant was Truman Capote and the scrapbook was part of his research. More recently, he was brought a copy of Catcher in the Rye, a not very valuable book that was in poor condition. When he opened it, he found a long inscription from the very reclusive J.D. Salinger. When someone brings in a book like an Audubon, Gloss explains, the owners generally know it is worth a lot, but the value of odd items like these can be a total surprise to the owner.