The lure of the hunt

The writer on the exciting true accounts of book hunting in Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Rego Barry, the editor of Fine Books and Collections.

December 05, 2015 04:10 pm | Updated 07:44 pm IST

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry

A box of truffles for the bibliophilic sweet tooth: 52 scrumptious tales of rare books acquired at bargain prices by collectors, dealers and bibliomaniacs. Sample these: in a box under his bed a man finds a 500-year-old book; an e-Bay auction purchase could possibly contain annotations in Shakespeare’s own hand; a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird still in an unsoiled dust wrapper from a flea market for $5; and a priceless collection of vintage comics discovered in a closet. These are just a few of the exciting true accounts of book hunting in Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Rego Barry, the editor of Fine Books and Collections , a premier magazine for collectors.

Barry interviewed several collectors and dealers to shape her absorbing narrative. As editor of Fine Books she is perfectly placed to access bibliophiles of all persuasions with stories about hunting for rare book treasures and snagging them at bargain prices. Rare Books Uncovered fills the gap in titles dealing with contemporary accounts of book collecting, especially collecting done on a small purse, with modest resources at one’s disposal. There are ample accounts — in books, pamphlets, and catalogues — about institutional rare book acquisitions and large rare book collections assembled by wealthy collectors, but there’s precious little about the serendipitous rare book finds made by the common bibliophile trawling for bargains in all kinds of likely — and unlikely — places.

Pradeep Sebastian

Barry’s book is also a timely and much needed update of the ‘Tamerlane mythology’ embedded in book collecting circles: the deeply held belief by treasure hunters that “Anything Can Be Anywhere”, that is, you can never predict what rarity will be lurking where, and today could be the day you hit the jackpot; that dream of making a sensational rare book find at some ridiculously good price. The first account here involving that legendary book runner, Martin Stone, is probably the most gratifying story any book hunter can ever hope to hear. Here is a book dealer/book scout who has seen it all, every conceivable rarity, who has made a habit of turning up books of the ‘only known copy’ variety, and now he finds himself in a moment that fulfills even his great bibliophilic dream of a phenomenal find, one that even he admits will probably never come again.

Stone is shown an entire floor packed with scarce, sought-after out-of-print editions in near mint condition! It is the mint condition of these century old books that shakes up even this veteran book hunter. My personal favourite here is of a private press treasure found by Philip Bishop, bibliographer, dealer and collector of the typographically sensible limited editions of Thomas Bird Mosher. I, as well as several modern collectors, will relate to his moment of discovery: pouncing on a book dealer’s bibliographic mistake. In the early 90s, thumbing through an AB Bookman’s Weekly , Bishop comes across an advertisement for a Mosher press book. He is at once alert, and tingling with excitement.

Even the scant description for the book is enough to tell him that this may be the famed edition he has been hunting for many years. A vellum copy of The Germ of which only four copies were printed in 1898 by Thomas Bird Mosher, and done up in a dazzling exhibition binding. Bishop tells Barry:  “It’s the black orchid of Mosher’s publications. It’s one of the finest specimens of his book production…There are only four copies in existence, and I just wanted that book !” But what filled him with trepidation (and wonder) is that this copy was being advertised by what looked like a remote trading post out West than a proper antiquarian bookshop. Could it all be a terrible mistake?

Nevertheless he decides to go for it: phones them, buys it, and asks for it to be shipped overnight, paying heavily for priority mailing. When it arrives the next day, Bishop locks his bookshop to examine the parcel undisturbed, and unwrapping it, gets a glimpse of a mint green slipcase — the first sign that this could be the very thing he has been looking for. Barry writes: “The way he remembers it, he was trembling with excitement…One look at the spine pretty well sealed it. ‘Oh my God! I’m looking at this book, and I am seeing the onlays, the incredible tooling, and all edges gold, bright, shimmering.” Barry neatly captures the moment — and the excitement — still present in his voice twenty years later.

When I asked Rebecca Barry if there were any surprises while researching her book, she offered this: “I was ecstatic to receive a letter from Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry early on in the process. I refer to him as a “spiritual leader” for bibliophiles, and I was hopeful that he might share a story from his scouting days. So I posted a letter to his bookshop in Texas. Within a week or so, a typed reply arrived. I was amazed. It’s not insignificant that several of my interviewees quote the author-bookseller, and having his story in the book means the world to me.” Barry herself made a nice find early on in her book collecting days (something Indian bibliophiles will find interesting): tucked inside a first edition of Death of A Salesman was a ticket that turned out to be a press pass for the 1931 Indian Round Table Conference.

I will let you discover the provenance for yourself when you read the book, along with the other 50 odd rare book discoveries uncovered inside its covers! Nick Basbanes in his sparkling foreword to the book sums up the lure of the bargain hunt: “One of the many beauties of book collecting is that it is an activity that can be enjoyed, and mastered, at any level. We can all admire private libraries that are assembled with the backing of small fortunes, but just as impressive in my eyes are the collections that emerge from connoisseurship and perception deployed in the field, nudged along by serendipity and good old fashioned luck.” I can easily see a Volume 2 of Rare Books Uncovered , bringing us more appetising tales of book hunting conquests.        

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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