- Out of Print & Into Profit: A History of the Rare and Secondhand Book Trade in Britain in the 20th Century
"To each his own obsessions . . . My passion, you must have noticed, was uncut books. I scoured auctions and bookshops, ruler in hand, and I went weak at the knees if I found one that was intact, that hadn't been plowed. Have you read Nodier's burlesque about the book collector? The same happened to me. I'd have happily shot any bookbinder who'd been too free with the guillotine. I was in ecstasy if I discovered an edition with margins two millimeters wider than those described in canonical bibliographies."
"I would be, too."
"Congratulations, then. Welcome to the brotherhood."—Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas
This lively exchange between two characters in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's literary detective story neatly captures the ludic delight, and no little erudition, of Out of Profit & Into Print. There is, indeed, a knowing dialogue running through the twenty-seven essays and appendices commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association. Much like the characters themselves, more than half the contributors to the volume make their living from the trade, and while others may write from the perspective of academics, collectors, or librarians, they, too, remain "committed participants" in this bibliophilic brotherhood (xvii). To read this book is to be taken into a confidence of sorts and to be immersed in the world of auctions and bookshops, catalogs and booksellers, and collectors and buyers already familiar to initiates of the twentieth-century rare and secondhand book trade in Britain. As the advance publicity for the book promised, its appeal is not limited to book and cultural historians and booksellers. Rather, it is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the world of rare books. [End Page 363]
The book's précis is nothing less than the first "attempt to map out the overall shape of the British rare and secondhand book trade in the twentieth century" (xvi). Accordingly, the structure of the book offers a contrast to the usual biographical format so familiar to those reading about the trade. (Even so, the larger-than-life figures of J. Tregaskis, B. A. Quaritch, J. Leighton, and B. D. Maggs—along with a host of others—feature prominently in many of the essays.) Instead, the book is divided into four parts and five appendices, each offering a different thematic approach to the trade. The first part is concerned with buying, or how the trade acquired its stock. And though all three essays are excellent, Frank Herrmann's account of the role of the auction houses is particularly evocative. As a former advisor to Sotheby's book department and the head of its overseas operations, he offers an insider's perspective on the how the auction houses really worked—and how their practices changed over time. Even those readers less familiar with the more intricate practices involved with high-end auctioning will no doubt find his conversational and cultured tone both welcome and delightful: "In the old days, if, while viewing a sale, you wanted to find out what lot was likely to fetch, you asked the porters" (11).
The second and largest part is concerned with selling, or how the trade sold books. Although some of the essays are lengthy and others little more than vignettes, all are most suggestive of what the trade was like from the perspective of the sell itself. Paul Minet's examination of a century of innovation in selling books provides an interesting perspective on the specter of the Internet, which stalks the pages of the book. We are presently in "a distinct moment in the evolution of the trade," he writes, and innovations such as the Internet are already having a discernable, if uncertain, effect on how the trade will continue to function (xvi, 72). Another fascinating essay is H...