The lure of the hunt

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.

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. Stone is shown an entire floor packed with scarce, sought-after out-of-print editions in near mint condition! 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. 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. 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.”

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! 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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