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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Book Twenty-Four

The twenty-fourth book we read this year is Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad, by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern.

The dust jacket calls these two formidable women the "Holmes and Watson" of antiquarian books. Ms. Rostenberg's experience began with an interest in history, and included a five-year apprenticeship in New York with a knowledgeable European dealer. In 1944 she entered the rare book business under her own name. Ms. Stern's experience began with an interest in literature. In 1945, she joined her friend as partner and protege.

Ms. Rostenberg's knowledge was gained mainly in apprenticeship, and she passed this on to Ms. Stern in the same way. This was the traditional method of learning and becoming expert in the business.
We observed too that many French firms were family affairs. ... When we first ventured overseas for books, we dealt, for example, with Clavreuil Pere and with Chamonal Pere. As the years passed, the sons took over. And now, alas, we find that many of the sons have gone, replaced in France by their sons--the grandsons of those who started us on our way.
It is a tradition that is slowly fading away. Peter B. Howard, owner of Serendipity Books and proud father of two nurses who are uninterested in antiquarian books, says that bookstores today are fragile things, and are almost always one-generational.

After the war, Europe offered many treasures to the intrepid book dealer.
The Old World might have been low on food and minus many of the comforts of life, but during the decade of 1947 to 1957 early printed books were available en masse.
Their focus began on the sixteenth century, and as years passed, and such books became harder to find, their focused shifted forward into the seventeenth century, and eventually into the eighteenth century. They were one of the few firms that traveled overseas right after the end of the war, and they became quite well known. Though they still venture abroad, they used diaries and correspondence on their trips during that first decade only. After that, travel and family had changed, and they were no longer alone among book dealers crossing the ocean in search of treasures.

The book is full of the characters of those European bookstores. The women record their impressions of the cities, and their excitement over their acquisitions. They did not record many specifics about the books, but this book includes retrospective narratives that embellish and detail their original writings. One of their diary entries offers a wonderful description of hunting through a bookshop:
The bated breath with which one glances at the shelves--the expectancy of taking down a vellum- or English calfback, the thrill of opening to a Renaissance titlepage with a charming woodcut or floral border--these are so inherent a part of the booktrade & such a pleasant concomitant of it that it is really a pity to buy just from catalogues.
Or, today, just from the internet.

Though they enjoyed the actual hunt, many of their own sales have been done by catalogue. And what they sell they first examine, absorb, and add to their wealth of knowledge, so they know much more than just books. Most sales of such antiquarian items are to institutions, not private collectors, and so with each sale the market becomes thinner and thinner. Many of the best books are now in permanent holdings. Though a thriving antiquarian market still exists, no longer is there the huge opportunity that Ms. Rostenberg and Ms. Stern enjoyed.

This book leaves us with the impression that these women were far more interested in the knowledge they could gain from old books than they profit they could make, though they were certainly able to earn a living at the business. They used that knowledge to write several other historical, biographical, and critical books on a variety of subjects that grew out of their original interests in history and literature. Just as importantly, they valued the knowledge and the friendliness of the dealers they visited, many of them year after year. An excursion to a single shop often lasted for two days and included exclusive access to special books, a guided tour of the bookshop, the owner's residence, the city, or all of them, and the sharing of a meal. The importance of these experiences are emphasized in the final sentence of this book:
The need and the love of books implies the need and the love of booksellers. They were--and, we add gratefully, they still are--inextricably bound one with the other.

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