A Letter from America IV: Secrets in the Rare Book Business (May)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

People are constantly telling me very fine secrets. It is one of the real advantages of the rare book business and the antiques trade in general. So many folks have to get by on seedy peccadilloes, fetishes best not told, crazy aunts in the attic, previous or present substance abuse "issues", photographs taken by concealed cameras. The book business is far more wholesome. Don’t tell anybody, but he’s about to go belly-up - whole collection on the block in the spring. Keep in under your hat, but I know where the remainder is. Mum’s the word, but it’s actually a clever facsimile. I know the buyer/ seller/ underbidder/ perfect person/ quickest and best bookbinder. For God’s sake don’t tell anyone- can’t really think why I told you. These and a thousand other confidences are whispered in my ear daily (my left, or telephone, ear). This is because secrets in the book world, unlike messy personal ones, are often of little value unless you tell somebody. The real question is who you tell and why. All those being confided in should bear this in mind. Actually, that’s not always true. I greatly regret the sundering of my relationship with one of my more flamboyant peers in the trade (can’t say who- it’s a secret- but we went to the same educational institution) because he used to tell me lots of things far better kept to himself that could not possibly redound to his benefit. And of course drunk or otherwise altered booksellers are another matter entirely. Some secrets are basically useless. For example, I have always specialized in the works of John James Audubon and so came to know many of the scholars in the field. One of his biographers, who had a reputation for being a tad bit difficult (don’t even bother to ask me who) came to me for advice. She had long worked on a revision of her biography of the naturalist, and had run down, she alleged, many new and fascinating facts missed by all other researchers. These, she told me in confidence, were quite hot stuff that would shed new light in dark corners and make everybody sit up and take notice. Could I suggest a possible publisher (she seemed to have fallen out with her earlier ones)? I sent her to a friend of mine, a museum curator, who was expert in the area and a reader for several major university presses, and in due course the author forwarded him the typescript. When my friend went to read it, however, he discovered that every sheet which might have contained new information was blank. He assumed there was some mistake and called the author. "Oh, no," she said, "I left those blank on purpose. The new information is secret until the book is published." My friend pointed out that reading the typescript was like looking at Swiss cheese. "Well," the author said, "You can just imagine from where the gaps are where I’ve gathered new information. Otherwise, my rivals will steal the secrets." Needless to say, a more trusting publisher undertook the revised edition. Far more secrets in the rare book world have to do with where things are and where one wants them to be. We would all like to think we have an inside line, and nowhere is this more evident than a large book fair. At one New York Book Fair years ago no less than four booksellers took me to one side and, after swearing me to secrecy, proposed we jointly buy a great bargain (I was to do all work and sell it) which they knew to be on the floor of the fair hidden under a table. I had been shown the item in the first hour of the set-up and had turned it down, but it was nice to be so broadly confided in. And then there is the "secret" customer, a much-desired state of affairs which has also ended with a thud for many dealers at a book fair. Nothing is quite as painful as watching an "exclusive" customer happily meeting the trade booth by booth. One well-known hard-charging American dealer (I think you know I’m not going to tell you who, but he’s not in the ABAA) solved this problem by simply accompanying his star customer around the New York fair and physically interposing himself between the collector and other booksellers, even in their booths. Conversely, how many booksellers have set off with high hopes to an obscure backwoods auction they hoped was a "secret" only to find that all of their friends in the trade were already there? There is nothing quite so painful as walking into some dim V.F. W. hall five long hours drive from home, while all of your colleagues swivel from the view to greet you with hatred in their eyes. The only solace is you will be supplanted in their curses by the next person to show up. In the most celebrated incident of this sort in recent years, about half of the booksellers in the East ended up in a small town in western Pennsylvania for two days of uneasy togetherness at a supposedly "secret" auction. Naturally the prices were far higher in the end than if it had been in New York . The really good secrets one has to keep to oneself, I’m afraid (actually I’m saving them for my memoirs). The simpler expedient, if you fear betraying a friend, is to forget them as soon as they are told to you. The last word on secrets (as on many things) comes from the Duke of Wellington. During his early years of service in India , according to his biographer Elizabeth Longford, the Duke (then Sir Arthur Wellesley) was approached by a maharajah who offered him the then staggering bribe of twenty thousand pounds in exchange for some critical information. "Can you keep a secret?" asked Sir Arthur. "Yes!" the maharajah replied eagerly. "Well, so can I."

- William Reese