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I’m not a rare book collector, but last weekend I checked out the Rare Books LA event in Pasadena, which featured the wares of nearly 90 booksellers, printers, artists and dealers.
Looking at the wide range of material for sale – from first editions and fine-press books to old maps, early photographs and sci-fi magazines with lurid covers – I asked the obvious question:
What makes a book rare or worth collecting?
“I say, anything that somebody will pay a lot of money for,” says Brentwood-based David Thornton of Discovery Bay Old Books with a laugh. “It’s like, what is the meaning of life? I’m not sure there’s a succinct answer to that.”
Thornton says he’s been collecting and dealing rare books for about 50 years. A fan of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and 19th century fiction, he was selling, among other things, Twain first editions and a 1755-56 two-volume, second-edition set of Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the latter priced at $12,000.
“I’ve done many of these. I’ve probably got 100 of these under my belt, up and down the coast,” says Thornton of these events. “This is a good show, a nice cross-section, what I call a high-end show.”
While he’d had a good morning sales-wise, he shared that the rare book business has changed along with tastes and interests.
“Over time, let’s talk decades, certain authors just get forgotten. Even your top authors – such as Hemingway, Steinbeck – I used to keep at least a shelf of Steinbeck first editions. I’m lucky if I sell one a year now. If you go into the ’20s and ’30s, like Booth Tarkington, you can’t give them away. Even 20th Century literature is pretty stale right now,” Thornton says, though he doesn’t sound pessimistic as much as interested in what comes next. “It’s the high-end of the market that I think will survive.”
Moving on around the hall, there were representatives from all over the United States, Germany, France, Canada and the UK, as well as plenty of local vendors, too. Some excellent Southern California fine press printers that I know were there: Jean Gillingwaters of Upland’s Blackbird Press, former Scripps College Press director Kitty Maryatt of Two Hands Press and Carolee Campbell of LA’s Ninja Press, as well as New York City book artist Russell Maret.
I met up with Jen and Brad Johnson of Covina’s Johnson Rare Books and Archives; they’re co-producers of the event. Jen Johnson explained the appeal of these kinds of shows.
“It’s like going to the most fabulous rare bookstore that you can imagine, and you can discover wonderful things and build your collections,” Jen Johnson says. “You can learn about historic materials, you can touch them, smell them – sort of, through your mask – and enjoy them….It’s just a fantastic way to spend the day.”
While talking about the couple’s Covina store, The Book Shop, Jen Johnson mentioned that one of the store’s specialties was heavy metal, which caught my attention. So Jen called Brad over to talk about the range of materials they’d amassed, which included books, flyers, tourbooks, fanzines and even a battle vest – a jean vest covered in patches of heavy metal bands.
“We’ve had everything from handwritten lyrics from bands like Cannibal Corpse to a collection of really early photos of Suicidal Tendencies,” said Brad, a fan of the music.
“It’s the music I grew up with. There’s a ton of academic attention around punk. Heavy metal’s always been more working-class; it kind of drove me nuts,” he says.
The couple decided a few years ago to start putting together what Brad describes as “this massive collection” of material on the music, and he encourages people to keep collecting it, too.
Listening to him, you could easily imagine all this material filling up a garage or storage space. So, this massive heavy collection, what ever happened to it?
“UCLA bought it,” says Brad, demonstrating that perhaps he and Jen have a good idea what makes an item rare and worth collecting.
Later on, I looked it up and you can read about the collection here. If you’re interested in attending one of Rare Books LA shows, there’s one scheduled for May 20-21 in Palm Springs and another at LAX October 14-16. See rarebooksla.com for details.
OK, let’s get to this week’s Q&A, which is with Antoine Wilson, the author of the novel “Mouth to Mouth,” as well as links to more author profiles and the week’s best-sellers.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Antoine Wilson on the books that made him a writer
Antoine Wilson is the author of three novels. His latest, “Mouth to Mouth,” was published in January by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster.
Q. Is there a book or book you like to recommend to other readers?
Someone told me once: When in doubt, recommend Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day.” A perfect novel.
Q. What are you reading now?
I just finished Sarah Manguso’s novel “Very Cold People,” which I loved. I’m a huge fan of her work, and delighted to say that her first foray into the novel form is astoundingly good. I’m also reading “Mac’s Problem” by Enrique Vila-Matas. I loved his book by him “Bartleby & Co.” and his short stories about him. This one I picked up on a whim, and I’m loving it so far. And “The Tempest,” I’m re-reading “The Tempest.”
Q. Can you recall a book that made you think, “That was written just for me.”?
Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. I read it toward the end of college, and it was one of the three books that, for whatever reason, made it clear to me that I should be writing novels instead of trying to go to medical school. (The other two were James Baldwin’s “Another Country” and Thomas Pynchon’s “V.”) I don’t know how to explain it, but Auster’s work spoke to me on an almost telepathic level. The right books at the right time, right?
Q. Is there a book you’re nervous to read?
To re-read: Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.
Q. What’s something you took away from a recent reading — a fact, a snatch of dialogue or something else?
Not that recent—the pandemic put a damper on that—but I was at an event where Yiyun Li and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum were talking about short stories, and they talked about how, as writers, they tended to be finished with characters who appeared in their novels, whereas their short story characters lived on for them, available to them for later stories. That tidbit about characters has been turning over in my head ever since.
Q. Do you have a favorite book or books?
Too many favourites! Everything from WG Sebald’s “Austerlitz” to Charles Portis’s “Masters of Atlantis.” My pantheon is packed and sits atop a flattened summit.
Q. What’s a memorable book experience — good or bad — you’re willing to share?
I had a strange and wonderful experience not long ago, where I found myself thinking about some scenes from the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” then realized there was no film adaptation. I’d read the book almost exactly a year earlier, and somehow the visual imagery of it had stuck with me so vividly it had turned into the memory of a film that never existed.
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