Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 29, 2016

Books Rare … and Well Done

Sometimes I envy people who have one abiding, overarching interest in life.

It could be anything: trainspotting, birdwatching, triathlon. Whatever it is that grabs them, it provides a single point of focus, and they can concentrate all their energies on it.

You know them: the ones with model train setups that take over entire rooms or require additional outbuildings; or someone who spends endless summer weekends engaged in historical reenactments; or the Trekkies who make every Star Trek convention.

For me, the interests dawn, wax, wane, then recede, to be replaced by the next interest.

I’ve had plenty of interests outside of working: collecting, for example. Among other things I’ve collected at various times were stamps, baseball cards, vintage dinnerware and rocks. I still have a shoebox full of rocks …

IMG_3312 Brad Nixon

… and some interesting dishes.

dishes pano

I’ve pursued plenty of other interests, from amateur theater to British sports cars and geneology. But I’ve never had that grand passion that takes over everything else and becomes the dominant focus of — if not every waking minute — all my spare time.

I’ve always liked books. I like reading them, having them, arranging them on the shelves. I’ve “collected” books, insofar as I’ve amassed a fair share of them, but none of them are, to my knowledge, valuable as things in themselves whose rarity makes a book truly collectible.

I started thinking about the notion of book collecting, or maybe the idea of being on the lookout for collectible ones and reselling them. I knew a little about what makes a book “valuable,” but is it a skill one could acquire to a significant enough degree to become a knowledgeable collector? Would I even recognize a collectible book if I came across it in an estate sale or an antique market? We had an opportunity to learn something about book collecting from some genuine experts recently when we attended the 49th California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena, California.

It was big, about a dozen long aisles in a large hall, with more than 200 booksellers from all over the world. These were serious, dedicated, well-informed pros in the business of books.

IMG_3117 Brad Nixon

The exhibits included tens of thousands of print items from across the entire range of the word on paper during the past 2,000 years. Since I’m not a collector, and possessed no specific interest or expertise, it was like wandering the aisles of a hardware store in which I didn’t know what all the gadgets were used for. It was a cornucopia of every type of print.

There were signed first editions, old and recent; ancient books from the dawn of printing (including a page from William Caxton’s early printing of The Canterbury Tales) and books of exceeding rarity and exceptional beauty. Two booksellers each had the complete first editions of the 4 volumes of A. A. Milne’s Pooh books. One priced it at $19,000, the other at $25,000. I saw children’s books, comic books, art books (extraordinarily beautiful printing and bindings), books in Latin, Greek, German, Hebrew, Chinese … you name it; posters; prints and diaries: It would require days to survey it all.

I took few photos, because I was busy looking and asking questions. Here’s one display that interested me:

IMG_3118 Brad Nixon

Those are first editions (some signed) of a number of notable 20th Century books, including works by Faulkner, Hemingway, even Gertrude Stein. Toward the left of center, lying flat, is The Town and the City, by John Kerouac: Jack Kerouac’s first book, and the only one for which he used his given name.

There were oddities, too. The most remarkable being a lock of hair from the English poet, novelist, designer and man of all pursuits, William Morris. Well. No serious Morris collection would be complete without it, I suppose.

Without fail, the booksellers were generous in spending time with a tyro. They willingly answered questions about the books they had, and I asked them as many questions as I could about how they conducted their business, too. Like any profession, it’s an enormous amount of work, requiring not only knowledge about the books themselves, but about the resources available to conduct research on a book’s publication history and likely value.

Several of the dealers admitted they didn’t sell all that many books at the event, and that often their primary customers were other dealers at the show, not members of the public. Still, they said, it was an opportunity not to be missed, because of the connections they made across the world of book collecting and dealing.

Am I now a book collector?

Perhaps. I liked the answer one woman gave me to the question I asked a number of dealers: How does one gets started in the business?

“I guess you just start with something you really like, and if you take to it, there’s another book, and then another, and always more to learn.”

No matter what betides, I’m drawing the line short of collecting locks of hair from famous authors.

On the subject of books, I invite you to participate in the Under Western Skies National Library Week Project. Before April 6, I’d like to receive your reminiscences or observations about the role libraries have played in your life. What is it (or was it) about some particular library or librarian that made a difference, or holds a special place in your memory? Is there a library that was particularly memorable for its atmosphere? Is there a library you use now that is worthy of mention?

CLICK HERE to see the full details about submitting your contribution. I look forward to hearing from you. Feel free to invite others, too. Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2016



  1. I didn’t know that you had a rock collection or an interest in British sports cars, or some of the others you listed. We have a lot more to talk about. 😀


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