From March 5–8, 2020, over 170 rare book dealers from 18 countries gathered at the Park Avenue Armory for the 60th Annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair. In the weeks since the fair, gatherings have been banned in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus and New York State has shuttered all nonessential businesses, mandating residents to stay home except to conduct essential life activities.
It’s hard to imagine that rare book shops would be deemed an “essential” business in the current climate. And now, holed up in my apartment, I find myself thinking of the booksellers I met there, wondering about their health and businesses and about how their industry will fare. But I also return to memories of the fair as a brief respite from isolation. The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair was, after all, the last cultural gathering I attended before sheltering in place.
It was a gathering of precious objects from all continents and many centuries; of written words and dozens of spoken languages; of tweed coats, thick glasses, and a lone pair of Crocs. I had never been to an antiquarian bookshop before, much less a convention of them. But watching the booksellers tend to these rare and delicate books, preening the pages of illuminated manuscripts in preparation for one of the industry’s most crucial trade days, their work felt, in a way, essential.
Over large pump dispensers of hand sanitizer on display cases, I spoke with five of the fair’s booksellers about some of the misconceptions about rare books, the secrets of their trade, the treasures in their troves, and why rare books matter to them.
Ryu Sato (RS): My name is Ryu Sato and my shop's name is Kagerou Bunko. I'm based in Tokyo, Japan.
Susannah Greenblatt (SG): And what is your specialty or niche as a bookseller?
RS: I'm pretty much keen to collect illustrated materials from before the nineteenth century. Western or Asian, whatever. I love illustrated books, picture books.
SG How did you get into the business?
RS: It's a bit of a long story. I had studied medieval manuscripts in university, and I was desperate to get a job. But after four years of studying medieval manuscripts, I realized that there was no job for me. I didn't want to be a librarian. I didn't want to be a scholar. And then one day, my best friend told me about a part-time job at a secondhand bookshop. And so I went to their shop to have an interview. The bookshop was just a secondhand bookshop, but I thought they might have a rare books section. And it turned out that their specialty was medieval manuscripts! It's a super coincidence. During the interview, I remember, there was one manuscript, a letter from the sixteenth century. So I read it in front of the owner. And he was so surprised. They never expected to find a person who had this knowledge. So there really was no interview. I was hired on the spot.
And then they gave me one hundred percent freedom so I could go anywhere to buy books and manuscripts. So if I wanted to go to New York? “OK. You can go.” I could go to Kyoto or Osaka, anywhere to get that kind of rare material. So I spent almost ten years at the company and worked so very hard. And then I started my own business. Time has passed; that was around seventeen or eighteen years ago. And at a certain point I got to know the game and realized that there were no customers who wanted to buy medieval manuscripts. And the market for pre-sixteenth-century materials had almost dried up. So I had to switch my subject. Privately, I had already been collecting picture books and illustrated books, especially, and other children's materials that were pre-nineteenth-century, so I changed my business to follow that interest.
SG: Do you remember the first manuscript that you sold?
RS: Yes. I sold some remarkable material to museums and libraries. I remember one of those manuscripts—technically it was a document—about this monster who appeared around the eighteenth century in a river outside of Tokyo. Someone recorded the event and added illustrations. I put that one up for sale a little under twenty years ago and set the price very cheap. So anyway, one museum wanted to buy it. And then a newspaper wrote it up and the museum held an exhibition about the monsters. And the manuscript was featured in the posters and the exhibition catalogues.
SG: What did the monster look like?
RS: It was a huge monster. It had a dark face, nineteen feet tall.
SG: Where do you source your books?
RS: Mainly, I buy the books and manuscripts from auctions. I think sixty percent of the items I buy are from auctions in Tokyo and Kyoto. Twenty percent I buy from private customers and twenty percent, or a little less, I buy from other dealers.
SG: What do you see as the future of the rare book industry and what do you hope for?
RS: I'm still hanging on to kinda [face-to-face business] directly with the customers, meeting up with them. I still have a small shop in Tokyo. I don't want to shift to online business. But maybe I'm not keeping up to date in this situation. Many dealers, my friends and colleagues, are closing their shops. It's a sad situation. But I'm still hanging on to my shop. And then traveling around to bring my books to show customers in person. This is my policy.
Nancy Schot (NS): My name is Nancy Schot, and I'm working at Antiquariaat De Roo from the Netherlands, from a small town called Zwijndrecht.
Bart de Roo (BdR): And I’m Bart de Roo.
SG: When was your shop founded? How did it get started?
BdR: 2004. Officially.
NS: Yeah, officially. But we first started exhibiting about five years ago. So we’re doing this fair for the fourth time.
SG: And before it was official?
BdR: A hobby. Reading old books and collecting old books. And then afterward I had to sell them, because of the prices, you know.
SG: Nancy, how did you get into the industry? Are there a lot of other young book dealers or collectors?
NS: Collectors, not so much. And the young people I've met that are in the trade are mostly from family businesses. That’s usually how it goes. Bart’s married to my eldest sister. I've always been in the book trade, ever since I was thirteen. And I’ve been working with rare books for thirteen years now.
SG: Is there something you find particularly fascinating or valuable about Dutch books?
NS: Yeah! We have a very rich history of printing and globe-making as well. In the Dutch Golden Age there were a lot of rich people who could have expensive things made.
SG: What's the strangest place you've ever found a really wonderful and valuable book?
BdR: Mostly from private individuals. Most book lovers and book collectors are strange people. We all have some . . . habits . . .
NS: We've heard of customers who have secondhand books on their toilet. None of these books, of course. But I've heard of such things: books everywhere, even on the toilet.
SG: Is there something here today that you would be most pleased to sell?
NS: We do have some things we're hoping to sell. For instance, these two volumes. They call them “royal-sized Bibles,” because of the big dimensions of the engravings, all colored by hand—mostly watercolor. We just got them in, so we haven’t spent much time with them. It's always sad to let things go. But this is the right place to sell something like that. American people really like big books and, well, everything big. And they also like biblical images. The Bibles are in Dutch, but the pictures speak for themselves.
SG: Can you tell me more about these royal-sized Bibles? Where and when are they from?
NS: Well, they were printed at Dordrecht—it's a big city in the Netherlands. And the engravings are the most special thing about them. The engravings could be inserted inside the Bibles, each of which was privately compiled. So each one of them is different. The buyer could search from a stock list. For instance, if I wanted the plate of David and Goliath in my Bible, I could have it inserted. The Bible and the prints are from the 1680s, but the text was printed before then.
SG: Is there a secret to rare book collecting or a misconception people have about it?
NS: Oh, a misconception would be that it has to be expensive. In reality, you just have to find a subject you'd like. It doesn't matter if it’s a hundred dollars or ten thousand—you just have to have a connection with it.
SG: What was the toughest book you’ve had to let go of?
NS: Well, sometimes you have to sell books for less than you bought them for, because you have to let them go. And if things aren't going so well, you have to make room for other merchandise. And that's always difficult to do.
Charlotte Du Rietz (CdR): Hi, I'm Charlotte of Charlotte Du Rietz Rare Books from Stockholm, Sweden.
SG: What is your specialty or your niche as a bookseller?
CdR: I specialize in books on Asia and Africa, but mainly Asia. Travel books, language books—vocabularies and grammars of non-Western languages—and then Japanese illustrated books, mainly from around 1900 and mainly design books for kimonos and fashion design. Also a little bit of art nouveau, art deco, European fashion from that time.
SG: How did you get into this business?
CdR: I got into the business through my father-in-law many years ago, but he specialized in law books, medicine books, theology, all these things I'm not so interested in. I really liked the job, but I didn't like the books that much. So I decided I had to do something I liked. I lived in Taiwan and in Japan for some years, and I was very much in love with Asia. So that's how it started. Many years ago.
SG: What's the strangest place you've ever found a really interesting book?
CdR: I think it was in Japan, in a very small town where I wouldn't expect to find anything. And I found this old, old man and he had some really interesting maps. I didn't know much about maps, so I don't think I made a very good buy. But it was very special. I can't remember the name of that town, though. It was long ago.
SG: Is there one item here you would be most pleased to sell today?
CdR: Yes, I think this panorama. It is a panorama of Constantinople—today, Istanbul. It's fourteen sections put together, and it's five meters long. I don't know what that would be in inches or feet. The photographer is Swedish. He came to Istanbul in the 1860s and stayed until he died in 1919, or something like that. He was quite famous, and he took photographs for tourists—panoramas, usually eight to ten sections. But this one is bigger and signed by hand. So it's really an original. You know, something special.
SG: What do you see as the future of rare bookselling and collecting?
CdR: Difficult question, I guess. I think it's so hard to talk about collectors because they’re so different. You have young ones, you have older ones, you have rich people, you have poor people. And no, I don't think you can generalize. Also, I think it's changing. Previously, many collectors were very specialized—they maybe bought a few books now and then. There are people today who have a lot of money and want not only one or two books, but hundreds at a time. So more of that, I think, is coming in the future. Just selling entire collections.
SG: Can you remember a sale that was particularly difficult for you?
CdR: There are many—especially Japanese books. I've had really marvelous, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful books. I mean, it's difficult for me to explain to you, but they are handmade by special artists. It's difficult, but I can't afford to keep all of them. I mean, if you're a bookseller, you're not a collector, or you're just a small collector.
Julien Comellas (JC): My name is Julien Comellas. The name of my business is Librería Anticuaria Comellas, and I'm coming from Barcelona, Spain.
SG: What would you say is your specialty or your niche as a rare bookseller?
JC: I specialize in antiquarian books—continental books printed before 1800, in general.
SG: What would you be most pleased to sell today?
JC: I'd be extremely pleased to find someone who really understands the value of this book, which is the first travel book about Spain, printed in 1515 in Rome. It's a little booklet of just a few pages. It is really worth studying and collecting. It talks about the author's travels from Madrid to Rome. He goes across Spain, takes a boat from Valencia to the Balearic Islands, then comes back to Barcelona and follows the road to Rome.
SG: And do you know the author’s name?
JC: Of course I do. Lopéz de Zúñiga is the author. He was a professor in Rome, but of Spanish heritage.
SG: Can you tell me about a couple other books that you have?
JC: Let me mention this book: It's the first book on steam washing machines. So that's the first use of steam to wash clothes. It was printed in—let me check—ah, 1806. The name of the author is Curaudeau. That's his main legacy.
JC: And this book here has an inscription written in the index by a well-known inquisitor, Francisco de Jesús. It says that the book can be published with corrections. In fact, several passages are crossed out because he wanted them removed.
SG: Do you know what the redacted part says?
JC: I haven't taken a look at that. You know, the bookseller is a ferryman. He holds the book for just one moment. His job is to send the book on its way, but he doesn't have time to make a whole scholarly study of it; he cannot afford it.
However, I do spend a lot of time studying my books. For me, the priority is to give a good overall description of each book and hopefully be able to share my understanding and fascination for each copy. Sadly enough, I don't always have the time to study in detail the story of the books, like in this case. But it is important for me to be able to open up the doors to the many mysteries that are often hidden behind the bindings, and guide the buyer to a more profound understanding of the books.
SG: Do you ever wish you could have more time with the books to study them?
JC: Of course! I would love to have the opportunity to spend far more time studying each book. The more you learn, the more you want. The sad truth is that we only have twenty-four hours per day and one life, but I do my best!
SG: What do you see as the future of the rare book industry? And what do you hope for it?
JC: I think books have an incredible value that is perhaps a little bit forgotten nowadays. But it will only be for a short while. The visitors to our website, and many people on Instagram or Facebook, for example, have a great fascination for the object. So I'm sure that the book will remain of value in the future.