This Business of Collecting

Along the way toward building my Mosher collection, I have learned a few things on how to go about this business of collecting. I say “business” because it takes some calculation and risk. And I say “building” a collection, because collecting is much more than sheer amassing. Anyone can be a buyer and accumulate a ton of stuff simply because one has the money or the will power to get, buy, and get some more. But to build, to construct, a collection, one has to have a certain focus and direction in proceeding with certain goals in mind.

I was drawn to the Mosher books in 1985 after beginning what some would call a “change of life” or a “career crisis.” I still think upon it as a spiritual re-awakening, a refusal to lie to myself anymore, and a need for inner discovery. Sounds New Age, and in some respects it was, but I just knew that I had to be able to squeeze more out of life than I was at the time. It was also the first time that visions of death would haunt me. A non-world of eternal silence beckoned. Enter the creative arts, writing poetry, first readings Walt Whitman, examining mystic traditions, composing for the piano, and writing endless letters. Exit a boring fifteen year college administrative job.

Like all architectural structures, one needs the plans to begin seeing what brick goes where. In book collecting that blueprint is the bibliography, the organization of a certain field of books into a comprehensive whole, defining the parameters while spotlighting the individual works. In some cases the collector doesn’t have a bibliography to go by, making it tougher, but not impossible, to proceed. After all, many a fine collection has become the nucleus for a new bibliography. In the case of the Mosher books, it has been Benton Hatch’s A Check List of the Publications of Thomas Bird Mosher.

The Mosher books are some of the scarcer press books, but I have noticed that it has become equally hard to find many of the other small and private presses. It’s helpful to not only shake the bushes for single books (at book fairs, through dealer catalogues, visiting bookshops, searching the Internet, etc.), but also be open to purchasing whole collections as well, either privately or at auction. I bought three collections privately. Of course, the money for such can be a problem, but if you divide the number of books into the overall cost, many times you’ll be surprised as to how little you’re really paying. Buying another person’s collection comes with other advantages as well. That collector spent a considerable amount of time assembling his or her own collection, and there are usually several highlights that you’d spend years trying to track down, if ever. It also provides you with the opportunity to upgrade copies of books in your collection. So, when it comes to buying a small to medium sized collection, my advise is to buckle down and do it!

Another important measure to take is to find a dealer(s) with whom you feel comfortable and who you judge knows something about your area of collecting. I can’t over emphasize the importance of this step. For me, there was a small handful of dealers who spent time with me and knew what I was after. They became my staunchest allies, and would let me know of books coming onto the market, or would call me with quotes. But a word of warning to the wise. If you turn down dealers a few times, don’t expect them to keep calling you. Bookselling is a business, and a book dealer doesn’t stay in that business by giving free information to no avail. And if this is a favored dealer, then please, by all means, don’t be a cheapskate and turn down a piece you feel is a tad bit overpriced. My experience has been that, over the long haul, you’ll come out ahead. I’ve paid some stiff prices to one dealer for a few things, but can hardly count the number of great “deals” that came in between.

Here are some further points I’d like to make pertaining to one’s collecting strategy. If you’re going to build a collection, then (1) go after at least some of the more expensive stuff first, (2) risk breaking a self-imposed spending barrier, (3) seek to put several anchors in your collection, (4) convert to importance of condition, and (5) build alliances with fellow collectors.

Some collectors never allow themselves to go beyond a certain price limit. I’ve seen this work to their detriment and to my gratification time and time again. Because they weren’t willing to spend above $20-$30 (or refused to pay an extra $10 above what they thought the price should be), a dealer would learn about me and my willingness to pay more for fine quality. Offers routed to me and away from them. In some instances, even my own self-imposed price ceilings would fall by the wayside, and I began to look differently at books I once said I’ll only purchase if below $200. Ask yourself, are they unique in some way –an association copy or exquisite binding? Is the condition impeccable? Once I began to break my own barriers, I started acquiring things which today I look back upon with a smug smile and a shake my head in disbelief over the small price I paid for such an incredibly good item. Believe me, once you break the $200 barrier, and then the $500 barrier, and so on, just look about yourself and you’ll see that you don’t live in debtor’s prison. Bibliomania can be controlled, and you’ll still have your sanity, along with one marvelous collection you can return to in enjoyment time and time again at your own discretion.

What do I mean about putting anchors into your collection? Well, while you’re on your way to breaking some of those self-imposed barriers, you can begin to acquire some special items. A collection is just ho-hum until you’re able to place within it some items of an extra-ordinary nature. For my own collection, I’m afraid of sinking the ship because there are now so many “anchors” attached to it, I think I’ll have to dry-dock!

Some people say condition isn’t just important, it’s everything. For the most part I wholeheartedly agree, at least for press books or modern firsts. If you buy a book in fine condition, and keep it that way, the book’s value will hold or even increase. Once a marred copy, always a marred copy. And what you buy with flaws, you have to sell with flaws. Besides, the original publisher –and this holds especially true with press books– intended the book to have a certain look.

The book-collectors-turned- friend relationship [Jean-Franois Vilain and myself] has meant much to us both, and our respective collections have only benefited from our friendship. I can’t help but feel that it is important for collectors to assist one another. Good heavens, we occupy a small enough, esoteric world as it is. Even if you don’t form a lasting friendship, it’s at least good to know what your fellow competition is doing. I know of other collectors who are always helping one another out, a kind of buddy system which work especially well if they don’t collect the same thing.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The above article was excerpted with permission from a much longer unpublished essay written by our member Phil Bishop entitled “A Passionate Publisher & a Collector’s Zeal.” It appears on the Mosher Press website here.

The Mosher site is loaded with valuable information about Thomas Bird Mosher ad his Mosher Press including sections on Biography, Printing History, and Exhibitions as well as providing links to many other sites of related interest. Phil’s article gives a brief idea of how his collection was assembled over the past decade and offers advice on collecting Mosher and other private press books. It is this latter advice that I have reproduced here as I believe it is applicable for any book collector or any other type of collector for that matter. His essay online also provides a link to Norman H. Strouse with extracts from his writings on Mosher from four books including How to Build a Poor Man’s Morgan Library. This latter book has always been very inspirational to me.

© Philip R. Bishop
August 1999

This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the September 1999 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.