Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 23, 2009

The Incredible Instant Book Collection!

Last week, Abebooks.com’s newsletter, The Avid Collector, arrived in my mailbox with a headline that went something like this:

“Own A Full Collection of All Hugo And Nebula Award Winners For $110,000”

The headline seemed almost absurd to me.  Who has that kind of money, especially nowadays?  Aren’t the ultra-rich getting out of these sorts of frivolous things?  And if some rich person were willing to suddenly want an instant book collection, why would they want a genre collection, rather than something more prestigious, like Booker winners, or Nobel winners?  Who on earth is this being marketed at?

I’d almost dismissed it as a curiosity when I happened to notice that one of my favourite local booksellers, Contact Editions, is also, as of this month, getting into the sale of complete collections.  Something is going on here.  This is some kind of new thing.

Or rather, this seems to be a resurgence of an old thing.  Rich and influential people have long looked to own personal libraries as a mark of wealth and social stature.  Any specific interest in books was less of a factor in the accumulation of these collections than the prestige of owning them, and so secretaries and dealers were often employed to put together “instant” collections for people who were more concerned with the look and value of the books in their library than their contents.

But we’re a long way from the Gilded Age, and a good library doesn’t impress these days quite the way, say, a 120 foot catamaran will.  Beyonce and Jay-Z drink champagne on the deck of their boat, not the fat armchairs of their libraries.  And we’re hardly in an economic climate that suggests hoards of new millionaires looking to buy into the hobbies of the rich and powerful.  So?

I think the answer is in the motives of the bookseller rather than in the emergence of a new market, and this alarms me.  We’ve all heard that we’re in the middle of a mass bookstore culling, with independent booksellers dying off in waves first to the emergence of bookselling superstores like Borders & Chapters/Indigo, and then to online sellers like Amazon, but nowhere is this more true than with used and rare booksellers.  Theirs is a more specialized product, and in a book world growing more and more towards reading as a temporal activity rather than books as an expression of permanence, they’ve been closing shop in droves.  Not that used and rare booksellers are vanishing – they are simply closing their doors and moving online, to catalogue sales and “by appointment only” availability.  They’re focusing once again on their specialized audience, the privileged buyer.

The privileged buyer collects books in a particular way.  To a large degree, they want the end product, the collection, more than they want to engage in collecting.  The collection is an investment or a trophy, something to relish having but not necessarily getting.  Many of these buyers represent institutions – universities or libraries – and use booksellers as a sort of outsourced scout or broker.  They don’t need, necessarily, to see the book.  They can form a list of what they’d like to own at home, then have someone else hunt them down.  They pay the asked price and have a library to show for it.  And so, yes, selling collections ready-made through catalogues or websites works, because it wasn’t as if these buyers were every going to go spelunking through the dusty old boxes in a bookseller’s overstock room anyway.

This is “book collecting” to the extent that paying a mortgage is “house collecting” and it makes me really sad.  Yes, many of these wealthy book collectors are true book enthusiasts who take real pleasure in receiving that phone call from their dealer telling them they’ve located a rare book that the collector has long lusted after.  But almost every one of those collectors started as a younger, less affluent person who honed their taste for books by encountering the real thing in public, open bookshops. Nobody learns to love books on the internet.  And there will be no market for “full collections” if bibliophiles aren’t able to first whet their appetites by discovering individual volumes.

We’re not likely to revert to being a society with a rich, Oxbridge-educated elite who monopolize and sustain the rare book trade and so any trend towards selling “collections” seems to me to signal one of two things: either booksellers are going to find themselves with fewer and fewer customers as their old customers die off, or else the rare book trade is going to become the private scouting arm of institutional libraries.  Is this a desirable future?  I don’t desire it, being a not-wealthy, young, non-institutional collector.  Am I alone in that, I wonder?

This Friday I want to start an experiment in amateur book collecting, right here on this blog.   If you’ve made it this far (I have overstepped my 96 seconds, I’m afraid) and are interested in book collecting, Web 2.0 experiments, or just scavenger hunts, I ask that you tune in then – and invite your friends!  The more people who participate, the better.  I’d like to demonstrate that we can build something great the (mostly) old-fashioned way…

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