Most male antiquarian booksellers fell into two categories, she had discovered: the misogynists who would be happy if a woman never sullied the masculine purity of their domains, and the ones who were pleasantly surprised to see a woman enter the premises. Even the latter type, however, never failed to drive a sharp bargain when it came to settling on prices. Browsing Roworth’s shelves, she had fallen in love with a set of Ovid’s works, each volume no taller than an index card, and printed by Blaeu in 1649. They were bound in light cream-colored vellum with gold stamping, and Roworth wanted £930, about $1500. Tempting, but out of her league, she decided regretfully. After some spirited haggling, she concluded a deal for a desirable but less costly volume of Juvenal’s satires from 1744. It was the date of Pope’s death, she recalled with a pang.
Laura’s experience in London Broil is drawn from my own dealings with booksellers. For a long time book-collecting, like Classical learning, was the preserve of Gentlemen, and privileged ones at that. Even today, the most prestigious group of book-collectors in Cleveland, the Rowfant Club, admits only men to its membership. Luckily, they are an exception, but antiquarian books are still very much a man’s world.
Antiquarian booksellers are a strange breed. They tend to studiously ignore all potential customers. They can be curt, especially if they don’t know you well. They sometimes remind me of Jack Black’s nerdy purveyor of vinyl records in the film High Fidelity, who seriously questioned whether most of his customers were worthy of their purchases. Still, they miraculously stay in business, and some even make a decent living by supplying bibliophile addicts with that indispensable fix.
Sadly, most of my book-shopping doesn’t even involve a visit to a treasure-house overstuffed with old tomes and haunted by bespectacled, scholarly types. Like other independent bookstores, brick-and-mortar antiquarian shops are rapidly becoming as rare as the books they sell. Most antiquarian book sales these days are conducted by mail, which works out well for the introverted sellers, but not always as well for the book-seekers.
One of the most important factors in collecting (for me anyway) is the physical presence of a book, its feel and smell and weight. As with people, some books are more charismatic than others. And you can’t tell whether you’ll fall in love with a book until you handle it, or at least see it. I can remember several occasions when I spied my quarry from across the room, sitting inconspicuously on a shelf– and my heart started to pound with excitement.
I am peculiarly attracted to books of a particular shape and size. I like them small. This has always been true. Even as a young child, I used to pore over the shelves at the school library, looking for the littlest ones. Since then, I have become much more picky about the age, condition and content of the books, but the thrill is essentially the same.
Even the most unsmiling and forbidding of booksellers understands this basic drive. They’re like madams in some kinky House of Pleasure who wouldn’t dream of judging the odd fetishes of their clients. Some collectors are focused solely on content, some on condition, but most are after a peculiar combination of factors that hits the sweet spot. “Oh, you like fat little seventeenth-century books in Latin or Greek? I have a few trifles on hand that may tempt you…”
A couple of times a year, I treat myself to something, usually from a catalog. At the end of last year, I ordered a three-volume set of Ovid’s works, very similar to the ones Laura leaves behind with a pang in the London bookshop of J. Roworth. Mine were printed in by Elzevir in 1652, a couple of years after the 1649 set by Blaeu that Laura covets. And like hers, mine are bound in vellum, but (alas) without the gold stamping. They’re in beautiful condition, almost as lovely as the day they were finished by some bookbinder in Amsterdam. And they were a bargain compared with the Blaeu set, which is not fictional, by the way…