We shall come to look back on this as a Golden Age of Book Collecting asserted Jim Hinck (Hinck & Wall) in his absorbing and challenging seminar at Senate House the other night. Never again will truly rare books be so cheap or so easy to find. It was a remark that drew an almost audible gasp of disbelief from some of his book-trade colleagues in the audience, but Jim has the advantage of being able to look behind the scenes of his excellent viaLibri website (if you do not know it, you should) and see what people are searching for, finding and buying in ways we never could before.
His talk is being written up and analysed more fully by Pinda Bryars for the ABA Newsletter and Website, but, in brief, it was a stylish examination of how the world has changed since John Carter’s magisterial “Taste and Technique in Book-Collecting” was published back in 1948: as recently as 2001 Larry McMurtry wrote, “I don’t think there is a better book about book collecting”. Carter was the most articulate bookseller of his time, his “ABC for Book-Collectors” is still our bible, but the so elegantly expressed truths and verities of 1948, his maxims on taste and technique, the precepts we were brought up on, simply no longer apply in a digital age. His classification of the four rarities – absolute, relative, localised and temporary – are no longer a matter of long experience and fine judgement. At the touch of buttons we can know how many copies of a book there are on the market or how many copies of the book are located in institutions (try the Library Search feature on viaLibri). Our American colleague Stuart Bennett was able to put together a catalogue of fifty books each of them potentially the unique surviving copy, all of them otherwise unrecorded or unlocated.
Silly as it may sound (and somewhat improbably), three of the silly “Nat Karta” books I showed you last week also belong in that category. Surely there must be other copies somewhere: we would guess so, we suppose so, but we cannot be sure, and until we know where, these are the only surviving copies known to exist.
Which brings us more or less neatly back to last weekend’s Edinburgh Book Fair. Any signs of a Golden Age there? Well, yes there were. Some of us went on a pre-fair behind the scenes tour of the National Library of Scotland, where we were warmly welcomed and allowed to see and handle some its treasures. This was the latest in a series of exchange visits between ourselves and our librarian friends from CILIP, intended to break down perceived barriers, but in truth the digital transparency of today’s market has already worked its magic. With all the necessary information available at their fingertips, today’s librarians have little to be wary of. The social media too are playing their part in building a collaborative exercise between booksellers and librarians in moving books to their rightful homes. Private collectors too are taking full advantage of the digital age.
This was evidenced at the fair, where there was something bearing an uncanny resemblance to an eager queue of people waiting to be admitted. An early sale was to a young collector who had seen a book on my website and couldn’t quite believe until he had it in his hands that the copy was as good as the photograph suggested – nor that something so exquisite could be bought for so little. Elsewhere the fair was buzzing – conspicuously more people through the door than last year, the Scottish librarians out in force and buying strongly, private collectors making forays. Good to see some younger booksellers exhibiting in Edinburgh for the first time. Good to see some new ABA members at their first ABA fair.
Good to see some of the faculty for the new York Antiquarian Book Seminar fine-tuning their opening season this September. And overall an outstanding result – sales up 50%, tens of thousands of pounds, on last year.
Do we have a new audience? Well, maybe. I slipped out for a coffee on the second afternoon. The young French student who served me noticed by book-fair badge. She was desperate to get along to the fair as soon as her shift finished, her only worry was whether it might be too crowded in the final hour. It was a bizarre fear as the final hour was enveloped in the usual fidgety torpor of tired booksellers anxious to start packing – but a fear imbued with absolutely the proper spirit.
A thoroughly enjoyable few days. Books sold, books bought. A Golden Age? – I’m optimistic enough to think so. People are buying books in new ways. Tastes and techniques have simply moved on. But one way in which the book trade hasn’t changed is in the tradition of good fellowship and good company, a tradition upheld in Edinburgh more strongly than anywhere else. Thank you to the Scottish Branch and to all concerned.