A Typophile’s Notes Books

The world in the grain of paper

The first miniature book I bought was called, appropriately enough, My Adventures in Minibibliomania. I bought it from Karen Nyman, one of the foremost dealers specialising in miniature books today. Nyman had been a collector before she turned dealer. Like most bibliophiles she had started out collecting regular sized antiquarian books, with a focus on beautiful bindings.

Perhaps it was her affinity for fine structure in the physical books that turned her to miniature books (where the best of them require great skill and artistry to make since they are usually no more than 3 to 4 inches in height and width) which she began collecting in June 2005.

Author, creator

“I bought and read all the reference books,” Karen told me, “and by October I was buying miniature books in large quantities from a well-known collector who was selling his collection. He sold me books at a fair price and taught me a lot and mentored me and I created my first e-catalogue in April 2006. It consisted entirely of books I had bought from him.” That collector was none other than Robert E. Massmann, a legend in the world of miniature books. Massmann had not only been a collector but also author and creator of dozens of notable miniature books.

“Bob (Massmann) lived in Connecticut,” Nyman continued, “and I had met him at my first MBS Conclave. He was selling some of his vast collection at the Book Fair. I asked if I could visit him one day and buy more. I went to his home and bought hundreds of books and I continued buying from Bob for several years. He was a wonderful man and seemed to know everything about miniature books.”

The Conclave Nyman mentions is an annual gathering of the members of the Miniature Book Society, an event where members can look forward to books swaps, fairs, auctions and talks revolving around miniature bookmaking. The Conclave has been a very important part of her life. “Since the first MBS Conclave I attended in 2005,” she notes, “I have never missed one! I learn a lot, see a lot of interesting books, and am surrounded by good people who share my passion. And they are so much fun.”

It was through the Conclave that Karen Nyman met Siddhartha Mohanty, probably India’s most accomplished and serious miniature book collector. Mohanty published a very fine miniature religious book, and has formed an association of miniature book collectors and aficionados, some of whom are collectors of miniature scriptures. Much before I had even heard of miniature books or specialist miniature dealers, Mohanty had been buying regularly from Karen Nyman, and other noted dealers.

Special dedication

I have always wondered where and how specialist dealers like Nyman find their stock. We all have some idea of where and how antiquarian dealers of regular sized books go looking to add stock, but how do you replenish miniature books? “As I became known,” said Nyman, “people started contacting me when they wanted to sell their collection. Also, I visited bookstores everywhere, looking for miniatures. And I started buying on eBay.”

I’ve also been curious about how one shelves miniature books — especially a dealer with a large and fine stock like hers. It turns out that Nyman has a library with specially built bookshelves that are six feet wide and eight feet tall but with — and this was key — shallow shelving: just four inches deep! She also stores miniatures in drawers, wall cabinets and antique clock cases. Karen has seen nearly every kind of miniature book that’s out there, (and they are innumerable, and not just the one kind most of us think they are) but what was her favourite kind, what did she collect herself, and what are rarities collectors should look for?

“For me, letterpress books and well-crafted books with interesting content are worth collecting. I am also drawn to many religious books, particularly old ones. And children’s books — because they are so charming. Book-sets interest me too: like the Aunt Laura series. Some personal favourites are ABC's for Book Lovers, Book of Hours, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I am most drawn to the work of Barbara Raheb who writes out her text in a calligraphic hand, and in a book size that is just 1-3/8 inches in height is able to engrave illustrations that are hand-coloured.”

As for rarities collectors look for, Nyman says it all depends on what field of miniatures a collector is interested in. But two or three that she is usually on the lookout for are Noel by Achille J. St. Onge and Galileo a Madama Cristina de Lerena by the Salmin Brothers. She once sold a copy of Galileo (which is “one of the smallest books printed from movable type”) that had been on consignment with her, and since then has even managed to acquire a copy for herself.

Nyman has been the recipient of the Miniature Society’s two most distinguished awards, the Norman W. Forgue Award for “outstanding contribution to the world of miniature books” and the Glasgow Cup which goes to “a member who has shown a special dedication” to the society.

Her website, Karen Nyman Miniature Books, puts out new catalogues regularly, and lists acquisitions under various miniature categories. Though with no plans presently to publish or create a miniature book of her own, she continues to be very focused about collecting and selling miniatures for “their beauty and the skill it takes to produce them.”

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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