Collecting Rare Books - and Ephemera: Dandruff Piles
By Greg Gibson
Books sit squarely on shelves.
They are discrete, replicable units. They have titles, authors, and places and dates of publication. They organize nicely into classes – “fiction” and “non-fiction,” for example. There is agreed-upon language to describe condition, and there are bibliographical references that talk about the history and physical makeup of a book. When books sell, we can use such information to record and track the sale:
Melville, Herman, 1819-91
Moby-Dick; or, the Whale. NY, 1851. 1st American Ed. 12mo, 1st bdg, of drab purple-brown "A" cloth; small tears in joints, a few small stains on backstrip.
Sotheby's New York, June 17, 2010, lot 390, $17,000
It makes for a relatively organized market. Tidy, neat, and orderly. Not to mention rectilinear.
“Paper” on the other hand, is a mess.
I mean sheets of paper or cardboard with words and images printed, written, or drawn on them. “Paper” comes in all sizes, shapes and colors and, though it too can be categorized and put in folders and stacks, the number of categories, folders and stacks can seem bewildering. Worst of all, paper is fragile. It chips and tears. It leaves piles of dandruff.
Much of it, by nature, is unique. Manuscripts, for example – letters or journals written by a particular person for a particular purpose. Paper items can also approach unique status due simply to the ravages of time. Stuff gets thrown away. I read somewhere that the more common an item is now, the more likely it is to be scarce in the future. Who saves McDonald’s wrappers?
Seventy of the best ephemera dealers in America bring hundreds of thousands of items. A colleague who was exhibiting here for the first time approached me during set-up. “There’s nothing here but piles of paper!” he exclaimed in mock horror. And I have to admit I felt the same way for years.
I’ve written before about having “eyes” for certain kinds of material. Part of it is innate, based on one’s own sensibility, but mostly it’s an acquired skill. We tend to develop eyes for the things we see the most, or to which we are first exposed - whether it’s incunabula or comic books. In my case, I was in the midst of developing my eyes for maritime material when I walked into my first paper show, probably Papermania in Hartford, CT, maybe twenty or twenty five years ago.
Absolute incomprehension.Nothing but piles and piles, and boxes, and baggies, and trunks, and interminable folders full of paper. Autographs, maps, movie posters, letters, diaries, government documents, old newspapers and magazines, photographs, valentines, trade cards – a pandemonium of paper goods. I had no idea what to do about that deluge, so I imitated the canny paper hounds around me, rooting and digging through stacks of paper.
This is not to say nobody’s selling books. A quick look at IOBA.org, or ABE or Amazon will make it clear that plenty of people are engaged in selling those discrete, rectilinear units.
But it is possible, as colleague Mary Gilliam suggests, that the inability of some of us to sell books is a result of our maturity as dealers. We’ve been doing our best over three decades to supply our institutional and private customers with the titles and authors their collections lack. By this time, thanks to our efforts, they already have the books they need. What these customers want now are the ephemeral or manuscript items that broaden and supply context to their collecting areas – photographs, maps, letters, or diaries - in other words, “paper.”
An interesting idea, anyway…
Probably because it operates under the distinguished aegis of the Ephemera Society of America, this ephemera show features merchandise of a somewhat different quality than shows like Papermania, Allentown, or Boxborough. Not that there aren’t great things to be found at all of these venues, it’s just that the material at this year’s “Ephemera Thirty Two” show seemed to be a little more, umm… disciplined. There were fewer boxes of, “I don’t know what it is. Make me an offer.”
For the past few years the promoters have been our old friends at Flamingo Eventz, and this year they did their usual competent job of arranging booths, organizing porters, and getting all the dealers situated and satisfied.
But this show is an exception in that it comes pre-loaded with a wonderful advantage, enabling the Flamingoz to concentrate on their dealers rather than having to worry about publicity and advertising. The annual Ephemera Society Conference is held at the Hyatt Regency at the same time as the paper show, so exhibitors are guaranteed a healthy crowd of interested, knowledgeable collectors.
Add in the many dealers who are looking for ephemeral items to feed to their institutional and private customers, and you’re bound to have a good crowd.
How much the crowd spends is another matter. Consensus on this fair ranged from “There was more energy on the floor. I think we’re finally turning it around!” to “I think we’re going to outlive it (the current economic slump), but not by much.”
We’ll know more after the New York Book Fair, April 12-15, so stay tuned.
(Posted on Bookman’s Log. Published here by permission of the author.)