Just last night, over mounds of sushi at a new (to me) restaurant, I was asked to explain what I sold through the website—more specifically, what constitutes a “rare” book—all eyes at the table turned to me at this question.
At this point, anyone with any bookselling experience reading this is now violently rolling their eyes. “Rare” is a loaded term in the bookselling community. For many seasoned booksellers it means that only a handful of copies of a given book are in existence. ‘Rare’ is a term that is brutally abused by online booksellers to try and market their wares; often regardless of quality.
I stammered out some vague answer to the effect of “Well…I do sell some rare books, but not many, but the others are not just remaindered or something…uh…”
The truth is that only a handful of books we sell can be considered rare, and only a third are in the antiquarian category. The rest could be called “used” but I find that term vulgar for books I’ve put so much thought into. We actively seek first editions/first printings, or signed books—generally books that could be considered “collectible” for one reason or another.
Chris Lowenstein’s unifying theory of Antiquarian Booksellers, that they all use “…their ability to apply their specialized knowledge to the books they find and create value, and, in some cases, even create new markets”, is an excellent definition.
For me, what it comes down to is intentions. I care about books in general and my stock in specific. I try to deal in books that mean something from either a content or collectible perspective. And I work hard to continually improve my knowledge of the field and books I carry.
Which is why I loath “breakers” so much—a dealer who buys illustrated or illuminated books to rip into their constituent parts to sell off individual framed pages as art; often at a higher price than the intact book could garner. This practice is quite common with the most precious of books: incunabula. The tricky part is that often incunabula are in such bad condition, that they are only salvageable as single pages. In which case, provenance becomes critical.
And, again, the intentions of a given bookseller become critical. Sure, some people get rich from selling books, but not many. The Antiquarian Booksellers I trust and respect are booklovers first and booksellers second.