In this digital age, books seem poised to take on an additional allure as abandoned technology, much as we marvel over Colonial candlesticks and copper bedwarmers. A book is always tempting, whether aged or not, but this February you can see magnificent examples of antiquarian books at the 46th California International Antiquarian Book Fair.
You will also hear enticing tales of books once handled by some of the dealers that will be selling at the show. Michael Hackenberg, chair of the San Francisco Book Fair Committee, mentions a copy of the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon from Palmyra, New York, with a compositor’s note bound into it—to confirm that he had indeed set the type for that particular copy—which sold for $65,000. Hackenberg says, “Ephemera are of great interest, including a collection of mid-19th century Burmese imprints from an American Baptist missionary press in that country, and a mimeographed ‘reader’s report’ for Random House by Barbara Branden in July of 1957 on whether to publish Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.”
With nearly 30 years of experience in the business and as owner of Hackenberg Booksellers in El Cerrito, he knows what has value. “Age is not the major criterion,” he explains. “Many 16th and 17th century books are singularly unloved and nearly unsaleable. Historical or literary significance is crucial, especially if the copy has signatures or other associations of importance; condition looms large too. Plate books and specially illustrated books are generally rather collectible, and often printing mistakes can make a book exceedingly valuable.” He cites the 1631 London so-called Wicked Bible, where one of the Ten Commandments was erroneously printed as “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Who wouldn’t want that edition? He says that a “frantic campaign of recalling and burning” the botched copies means that any survivors can fetch $75,000 on the market.
Acclaimed dealer Thomas Goldwasser talks with perceptible awe about some books he’s personally seen over the years. “One particularly memorable and beautiful item was a 13th century illuminated Qu’ran in its original binding. It had been in one family for several generations, and is now in a museum. Another favorite was the Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth, published in London, 1787, which contains original examples of tapa cloth collected on Captain Cook’s last voyage.” Goldwasser, who owns Thomas A. Goldwasser Rare Books in San Francisco, has also handled a first edition of The Great Gatsby, inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his Hollywood attorney “at a time when he was almost completely forgotten.” All the books he describes are now in the hands of private collectors.
Vic Zoschak, owner of Tavistock Books in Alameda, describes the akin-to-gambling pleasures of book dealing, which cemented his passion and made him pursue antiquarian bookselling full-time. “In the early ‘90s, in a San Francisco book shop, I found Peter Parley’s second book for $32, and sold it for $1,250. It was like hitting the jackpot in Vegas: addictive. Not to mention that one’s success is totally and completely dependent on one’s knowledge and efforts. No one else can be blamed if you don’t succeed.” He notes that being one’s own boss is a pleasure after his long career in the Coast Guard, where “no matter how high you rise, you always answer to someone.”
To add context to Zoschak’s jackpot moment, he explains that his overhead is roughly $5,000 per month (without paying himself a salary), so he needs at least four sales of the Peter Parley variety to break even.
In terms of illustrious, famous volumes, Zoschak once was lucky enough to hold in hand a Gutenberg Bible, the first manuscript ever produced on a moveable-type printing press, from 1450s Germany. Fewer than 50 of these books are known to exist today. He also participated in the sale of a John Steinbeck manuscript for the author’s short story, His Father. “As to its sale price,” says Zoschak, “I don’t feel it proper to disclose that sum without the buyer’s concurrence, so let’s just say it was not inexpensive.”
If any of this sounds attractive to you, how would you get started? Goldwasser recommends, “Identify an area that interests or challenges you, and make contacts with booksellers who are likely to be able to help. Many collections are easy to form from things readily available on the Internet, but one must be careful to understand the descriptions, and to deal with reliable booksellers; members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America are bound to a strict ethics code.”
To begin that collection, attend the book fair with its more than 220 international dealers. Says Hackenberg, “Simply wandering the aisles, entering the booths, handling the materials, and talking with knowledgeable professional booksellers is an education all its own. Where else can one find so much under one roof in one weekend? The San Francisco fair is the largest antiquarian book fair in the world.”
For more info, visit cabookfair.com or call (415) 962-2500. The show runs February 15 through 17 at the Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth Street.
Erika Mailman is a freelance writer and historical novelist whose novels include Woman of Ill Fame and The Witch’s Trinity, a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book. She teaches novel writing online through mediabistro.com.