Interview with a Rare Book Collector

Let's find out the ins and outs of being a collector and a book store owner.

When it comes to books and ephemera, Bags Unlimited has a resident expert, and we’re lucky because his book store is right down the street! Not only does Jonathan Smalter write blogs for Collection Connections but we got to ask owner of Yesterday’s Muse all about what lead him to a career around books.

Click here for blogs written by Jonathan.

BU: When did you open Yesterday’s Muse?

JS: The business began with online sales only about 16 years ago, and the brick-and-mortar shop in Webster Village opened nearly 10 years ago (our anniversary is coming up on December 8th).

yesterday's muse books
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: What got you interested in collecting?

My maternal grandparents were both avid readers, and the idea of books as historical objects has always fascinated me. So I came to collecting and bookselling first as a reader, and as a collector second. I try to keep this in mind when I am buying new stock: it’s easy to get wrapped up in whether something is rare or unusual, but for me it still has to be interesting, too.

antique book
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: Was there a moment that you knew you had to make your passion your business?

JS: I began working at a bookstore when I was in my late teens, which is where I learned about online selling. That job made me realize that being a bookseller didn’t require a major investment of capital to establish a storefront. On top of that, I was good at doing research, gleaning the important details about books, and cataloging them. It occurred to me that maybe I could make a living doing this.

antique book
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: Approximately how many books are in the store?

JS: We have a total of about 20,000 books at the moment. A few thousand of these are waiting to be cataloged, and are currently in our storeroom. I would estimate about 12,000 books are on our sales floor, and I have another 4,500 in storage (most of these are either obscure material, or things that are either fragile or not in good enough condition for the shop).

antique book
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: What’s your favorite part of being a bookstore owner?

JS: Every day is different. Sometimes researching a book takes me down a rabbit hole and I spend two hours learning about the author, or about a historical event I had no knowledge of before. I also get to meet a lot of people, and most of them are fellow appreciators of the written word and/or the aesthetics of printing and book binding.

antique book
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: What do you think of repairing a book to sell- is it better to leave older books in an “as is” condition?

JS: Structural repairs are usually a good idea, because if you allow a book to continue falling apart you run the risk of pages falling out or the covers coming off entirely. In my view it is better to have something complete than something unrestored. There are differing views on this, though, and there are certainly examples of restoration that are harmful (non-archival glue or, horror of horrors, tape!). The age of the item matters, too. Most books and ephemera that are several hundred years old have had some sort of restoration done, so for me the question with those is how well were these done? Did the restorer create a binding that matches what one would expect for a book published during that time period, or is it a generic ‘job’ binding? If adhesives were used, were they archival quality (if not, they will damage the item over time)? I could ramble on about this for a while, so I suppose the short answer would be ‘each case is different, but overall I am an advocate of restoration.’

Antique Book
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: Do you carry other items such as old maps, manuscripts, lithographs?

JS: I do carry some material in this area, though the vast majority of my stock is comprised of books, pamphlets, and other bound material.

Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: What is the oldest book or newest book in the store?

JS: The oldest item I have at the moment is a single leaf from a book published by Aldus Manutius in 1497. The newest are a handful of novels (15, to be exact) published in 2018.

Mather's Magnalia
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: What is your favorite book in your store and why?

JS: I’ll give two answers, because the reasons are different. My favorite book is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, so I try to have nice copies of that whenever I can. My favorite collectible book, though, is a history of New England (The Magnalia Christ Americana by Cotton Mather) that was owned by four generations of the Beecher-Stowe family. It’s my favorite because I remember the day I finished researching it and confirming the provenance by finding a passage in one of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s books that mentions that specific edition of that specific book, and recounts the day her father brought it home. My only regret is that it is not signed by her (although it does have a few marginal notes written by her husband, and the names of her son and grandson in their own handwriting.).

BU: What is your favorite way to keep your books preserved?

JS: For books with jackets, I love mylar covers. I get them in a couple set sizes, and I prefer the ones that do not include the paper backing. For books without jackets, I get rolls of Duralar, which is a thicker mylar, and custom cut covers using a straight edge and an exacto knife (basically I make a clear jacket for the book). These are both invaluable for preventing scuffing, tears, and stains while the book is on the shelf, and when I ship to customers. It also brightens up the look of them a bit, and shows that I care about my books enough to invest in their future well-being, so to speak.

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Clear n Easy Book Jacket Covers on a ROLL. 9″ wide x 300 ft. long. Made from 1.5 mil archival polyester.

BU: According to there’s at least 35 popularly banned books, what is your opinion on this concept? Are there any on the list you agree with?

JS: I have never seen the value in banning books. I carry a wide range of material, some of which is rather controversial. For example, I tend to have a copy or two of Mein Kampf on hand, and at one point I sold a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet that I found tucked into a Bible, of all places. I believe making this material available encourages scholarship, and gives readers the opportunity to understand history and learn from it. I also believe that bans are often a result of blatant misunderstanding of the author’s intent (Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a great example). Simply excluding something from one’s reality is not productive, and as George Orwell showed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, has the potential to do extensive harm to society in the long-term.

Signed books
Photo by Julia Merrell

BU: Do you have any collecting goals at the moment? Books you want to get your hands on?
JS: Literature and history are my two main areas of interest, so first editions and signed editions of great literature are always of interest to me. I also actively seek out texts that are foundational to most topics (e.g., earlier this year I sold a first American edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species). I can always use material related to local history, especially local history that had national or international influence (women’s suffrage; abolition; history of photograph and film; etc.). I would be more specific, but I don’t want to give too much away!

Jonathan Smalter with books
Photo by Julia Merrell

Owner Jonathan Smalter is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), and former vice president of the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), both of which are trade organizations created to promote ethical online selling practices, and to encourage continuing education among fellow booksellers. He is also a 2011 graduate of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS). He has over fifteen years of experience in the book trade, during which time he has become adept at evaluating used and collectible books.

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