Late last month, at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, Rebecca Romney pulled a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl, Kaddish, and Other Poems” from her booth. She didn’t do this to recite from the pages, but to show off the writing in the margins.
Amy Winehouse had puzzled out the lyrics of an unrecorded song next to Ginsberg’s lines. “You see her artistic process,” Mrs. Romney said. “And it’s right next to someone else’s art that consumed them while creating something new.” The Ginsberg Text is the centerpiece of Ms. Winehouse’s 220 book collection, which Ms. Romney’s company, Type Punch Matrix, near Washington, DC, is negotiating to sell as a unit for $135,000. “It shows a life lived through books,” she said.
Ms. Romney is an established seller and known to fans of Pawn Stars as the expert on rare books. But at 37, she represents a broad and growing cohort of young collectors who come to the trade from many walks of life; across the aisle, Luke Pascal, a 30-year-old former restaurateur, presided over a chest of letters from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Michael F. Suarez, the director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, said his students are younger and less masculine today than they were a decade ago, with nearly a third taking full scholarships.
“The archive world is actually considered quite hip,” he said.
Of course, most entry-level collectors can’t shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a first edition. But by regularly visiting estate sales and used bookstores, scouring eBay for hidden gems, and learning how to discover value in a variety of items, enthusiasts in their twenties and thirties have amassed collections that reflect their own tastes and interests.
Their work has been exalted by awards from organizations and vendors such as Honey & Wax in Brooklyn, which recognize efforts to create “the most ingenious, or thoughtful, or original collections,” as opposed to the most valuable, Professor Suarez said. As a result, they help shape the next generation of a hobby and a tenuous trade.
Several young attendees stood out from the crowd of business attire and books at the show – in particular Laura Jaeger, a frail 22-year-old with a head of pink hair. Her mother, Jennifer Jaeger, owns Ankh Antiquarian Books in Chadstone, Australia, which specializes in books on ancient Egypt; Laura is in the process of becoming a partner in the company.
She plans to expand her collection to reflect her interests, she said, such as metaphysics and photography. “But I still really know my Greek, Roman, Egyptian rare books, real good,” she said. “I’ve been appreciating books for a few years now.”
Kendall Spencer, 30, also hopes to make his mark on the antiquarian book world. A law graduate of Georgetown, he became enamored with rare books while researching Frederick Douglass. He works as an apprentice at DeWolfe & Wood Rare Books while preparing to take the Massachusetts bar exam.
“When you walk around here there is no one behind a stall that looks like me,” said Mr Spencer, who is Black.
The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a trade group with more than 450 members, hopes to change that. The group launched a diversity initiative in 2020 to “encourage and promote the participation of LGBTQ+, BIPOC and underrepresented groups in the world of book collecting and commerce,” wrote Susan Benne, the organization’s executive director, in a statement. e-mail. The group also introduced a paid internship program where participants were placed with member firms.
“I want more people like me to take an interest,” Mr. Spencer said, “and I think that starts with someone inviting people over.”
First editions everywhere
When they start out, most collectors focus on used and vintage books that matter for personal reasons, sourced from thrift stores, used bookstores, and other amateur enthusiasts.
Thomas Gebremedhin, 34, a vice president and executive editor of Doubleday, began buying paperbacks at thrift stores in his early twenties while enrolling in the Iowa Writers Workshop, as a way to educate out-of-print authors of color, such as Gayl Jones, read. † Today he can afford much more expensive rare books, although he can also pick up first edition hardcovers for less than $10 at a “secret” bookstore in Brooklyn.
“You can find first editions everywhere,” says Mr. Gebremedhin, whose collection includes thousands of titles. “They should have a TLC show. You know that coupon show? I think there should be an equivalent for book buyers.”
Camille Brown, 30, started collecting books when she was 23 and worked at the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. “I started posting on Instagram about the things I was digitizing, which then led to posts about my own personal collection,” she said, which includes books on woodworking and joinery. (Her father is a contractor.) Soon, people started asking her for purchasing tips.
“It showed me that there was more interest in the market than I realized,” said Ms. Brown. Now she is an amateur bookseller on the platform, curating vintage books for clothing boutiques, getting most of her materials from library and estate sales.
Ms. Romney began collecting rare books at age 23, when she was hired by Bauman Rare Books in Las Vegas — a job she assumed her bachelor’s degree in classical studies and linguistics would not qualify her for. But she found that “general book literacy” was the only real requirement; anyone who is nerdy, curious and frugal enough can step in.
She said collecting can be “an exercise in autobiography” — a way to see facets of their own experience through the mirror of other people’s lives. For example: Margaret Landis, 30, is an astrophysicist who collects texts about the comet discoveries of Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in the United States. And Caitlin Gooch, the founder of a North Carolina nonprofit, collects nonfiction about black horsemen.
The father and uncle of Mrs. Gooch had documented the family’s “cowboy history,” she said, before her uncle died and the collection was lost. “We don’t know where those photos and videos are,” she said, “so for me, finding these books, even if they’re not directly about mine history, means I can share their information.”
Judging a book by its dust jacket
In addition to the link they provide to the past, collectors are drawn to titles and editions that look good. Therefore, as Jess Kuronen put it, the dust jacket of a book plays a big part in pricing.
Ms. Kuronen, 29, owns Left Bank Books in Manhattan, which caters to what she calls “beginner” collectors. In her store, a first edition of “On the Road” without a dust jacket costs $500. An “almost fine” first edition with the jacket recently sold for nearly $7,000.
At the Rare Book School, Professor Suarez said, students learn to “read graphic codes, the illustrations, and the social codes” to “understand the life of that book over time in different communities.”
“There are certainly people who want to buy strictly used books rather than newer ones,” said Addison Richley, 28, owner of Des Pair Books in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Once she’s finished a book she likes, she scours the internet looking for “a nicer copy or a more interesting edition.” Recently, a customer refused to buy a new copy of a vintage book they saw on the store’s Instagram.
“They explained to me that a used book is more special because it has character,” Ms Richley said.
Brynn Whitfield, a 36-year-old tech publicist, started collecting antique chess books five years ago. “I’m getting more and more compliments on having these items in my house,” she said. “People think it’s cooler than typical coffee table books.”
While the sale of used books is thriving online, most sellers believe there is a serendipity that only in-person browsing can provide.
“In our day, so much is trying to sell you what the machine thinks you already want,” said Josiah Wolfson, the 34-year-old owner of Aeon Bookstore, an underground store in lower Manhattan. “I don’t want to assume what everyone is looking for, even if they’re collecting something specific.”
Sometimes the book that jumps isn’t a book a collector intended to buy at all. But, as Mr. Gebremedhin put it, the ’emotional logic’ of a vintage cover appeals to the collector.
“I just got a first edition ‘Naked and the Dead’,” he said. He is not a fan of Norman Mailer, its author. But: “It’s a beautiful cover.”
Making space on the shelf
The used and rare book market is a circular system of materials and ideas, and many young collectors, including Mr Wolfson, see their shelves as ‘liquid’. He regularly uses his personal collection of mentally inflected titles for Aeon stocks, a process he likens to divination. If a book is no longer important to him, he said, “someone else really needs to get the benefit.”
Mr. Gebremedhin is considering donating his collection to the Columbus Public Library in Ohio, where he grew up. He gave away 500 books before moving to a new apartment in Brooklyn. “A lot of the books that come into my house end up finding someone else,” he said. “It’s kind of the beauty of reading and sharing it.”
Ms Brown, who sells books through Instagram, said “accessibility” is a leading impetus in her work. The internet, she said, “opens the door to these objects that lead many more lives than they otherwise would not have lived.”
Back at the fair, Jesse Paris Smith, 34, and her mother, singer-songwriter Patti Smith, were looking at a book written by Charlotte Brontë at age 13. source of binding. (Patti began collecting books around age 9, when she bought “A Child’s Garden of Verses” at a church bazaar for 50 cents; today it’s worth $5,000.)
“Jesse made books and I sold them,” Patti said. “I took inventory, packed them, gift-wrapped them, charged them.”
The Smiths also regularly give away books. “It’s painful, but we’re trying to bring the ones we don’t read back into the world,” Jesse said.
“But not our special books!” said Patti.