Needle-in-a-haystack stories are the caffeine of collecting. Who hasn’t heard a tale of someone finding a rare toy at a garage sale, a dust-covered antique in an attic, or a priceless document hidden inside a beat-up picture frame? “That could be me,” we are supposed to think, and right on cue, we do.
When it comes to book-collecting bonanzas, Rebecca Rego Barry has heard ’em all. As the editor of “Fine Books & Collections,” it’s actually part of her job to listen to such stories, and follow up on those that seem likely to lead to new tales of prize catches. Recently, Barry gathered more than 50 accounts of literary treasures discovered in unlikely places into a new book called Rare Books Uncovered, now available from Voyageur Press.
Barry was not always so interested in books. “I was actually more into rocks,” she says of one of her childhood passions. “I liked pretty minerals and polished stones, and there was nothing I loved more than going to the Museum of Natural History in New York and getting one of those kits with the rocks glued onto a piece of cardboard and some information about each one.”
“It’s only after you get it home and do your research that you know if you’ve hit the jackpot—or overpaid.”
A master’s in book history, which Barry calls “an extremely useless but really wonderful degree,” eventually gave her license to haunt the stacks of used-book stores and the aisles of book fairs. “I started out as a writer for ‘Fine Books & Collections'” she says of her transition from rocks to paper, “just doing a freelance article here and there. When they needed an editor about six and a half years ago, I tossed my hat into the ring and they took a chance on me. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Unlike the subjects in her book, Rare Books Uncovered found her. “I wish I could take credit for it,” she says, “but it was really the idea of an editor named Dennis Pernu. He had done a couple of books in a similar vein on rare guitars. I guess he was brainstorming in an editorial meeting one day and said, ‘What about books? That could be really cool.’ I think he found me through my website and just figured it might be something I’d be able to do. I almost didn’t believe it when I got his email.”
Soon, Barry was mining her contact lists of booksellers and book collectors for good discovery stories. In the end, she spoke to everyone from the legendary rock guitarist turned book hunter Martin Stone—he reportedly sold Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page a copy of the I Ching that had been owned by occultist icon Aleister Crowley—to the author and book dealer Larry McMurtry, who typed out his book-discovery story before mailing it to Barry. “I found more people and stories than I could fit in the book,” she says.
Obviously, Stone and McMurtry made the cut. In his letter to Barry, McMurtry told her the story of the time, 25 years ago, when he bought a rare copy of “New Yorker” writer Joseph Mitchell’s first book, My Ears Are Bent, for $18. Recently, Barry found one listed online for $10,000.
McMurtry had first seen his prize in a video sent to him by a dealer from Lincoln, Nebraska, to save McMurtry the bother of visiting the store himself. Stone’s story is more of an old-fashioned adventure. Thanks to his reputation as a book scout, Stone was invited to visit the private, upper-floors of the great Tulkens bookstore in Brussels, which, in 2008, decided to liquidate its stock after being in business for roughly a century. There, Stone was shown what Barry calls “an immense collection” of books that had been carefully wrapped in brown paper in the 1930s, which means they were in immaculate condition. Many were highly sought illustrated reference books published by the English firm of A&C Black. “These were books that were just as fresh as a daisy, as though they had been published yesterday,” Barry quotes Stone as saying, “but the date was 1899 or 1903, and some of them were in multiples. It was just extraordinary.”
Most of us will never be invited to cherry-pick the best of the best from a venerable European bookstore like Stone was, but the experience of Louisiana State University history professor David Culbert is something that just about anyone can relate to—assuming you are versed in Argentine literature of the mid-20th century. In 2011, Culbert was at an estate sale in Baton Rouge where he came across a first edition of El Aleph, published in 1949 and written by Jorge Luis Borges. Culbert paid 50 cents for his copy of El Aleph, which is rather a bargain considering that first editions of this title in good condition, which Culbert’s copy was, usually fetch around $3,000. And to think that some people make jokes about how little money there is in a liberal-arts education.
Other discoveries in Rare Books Uncovered feature more familiar titles, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which was first published in the United States in 1936 before being made into a movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in 1939. Probably the biggest collector of all things GWTW, as it’s often abbreviated, is John Wiley, Jr., who had long coveted a fellow collector’s 1950 French edition of the book, with its illustrations by Emilio Grau Sala. Wiley had one of these French editions, of course, but the rival collector’s copy contained an inscription to Vivien Leigh by Sala, along with a watercolor by the artist, depicting Leigh’s character, Scarlett O’Hara, dressed in green and standing in front of her home on the mythical Southern plantation of Tara.
Eventually, the owner of the French copy of Gone with the Wind put his entire collection up for auction at Christie’s, but the book was not among the individual auction items. Undeterred, Wiley placed absentee bids on several lots of books, most of which he won. When 17 banker’s boxes of books arrived at his door, Wiley was delighted to discover the French GWTW with the Sala inscription and illustration among a lot of 100 or so other foreign editions. “The Christie’s catalogers had missed it,” Barry writes.
This raises an interesting question: When one person finds a rare book, is their gain always at the expense of somebody else? “That can be true,” Barry says, “but among the booksellers I work with, especially those that belong to organizations like the ABAA or the ILAB, there’s an ethical obligation not to swindle each other or people who don’t know any better, like little old ladies selling their husband’s things. Personally, if I were to go to a garage sale and thought I had found a $5,000 book on sale for a dollar, I would feel conflicted. In most cases, though, the more common example is that you see a book you feel like you’ve seen before and decide to take a chance on it. It’s only after you get it home and do your research that you know if you’ve hit the jackpot—or overpaid.”
Early in her career, Susan Benne, who is now the executive director of the ABAA, got a taste of the jackpot herself. Back in 2002, when Benne was working for an antiques-show management company in New York City, she and a friend found themselves in a used-book shop near Boston. Previously, Benne had spent a few years working for a dealer of children’s books called Aleph-Bet Books outside of New York City, so naturally she headed for that section of the bookstore. There, in a basket filled with “little things that might have gotten knocked around if left on the shelves with the larger picture books,” as Barry describes it, she noticed a small box with an illustrated cover filled with seven illustrated booklets. The box was titled Seven Little Stories on Big Subjects, and a credit at the bottom of the box’s cover identified it as being published by the “Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 515 Madison Avenue, New York 22, NY.” The booklets inside also featured illustrated covers, and the author was credited as Gladys Baker Bond.
Thanks to her time at Aleph-Bet, Benne recognized Seven Little Stories on Big Subjects as an unsigned project from 1955 by the great Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are and countless other kid-lit classics. Taking her unpriced prize to the bookstore’s proprietor, she asked “How much?” Five dollars later, Benne had her Sendak, although she was not really sure what it was worth. When she later showed the box and its contents to her former bosses at Aleph-Bet, they happily took it off her hands, later rewarding her with a $1,500 finder’s fee for her sharp eye. Today, in case you are interested, you can pick up a different set of these Sendak booklets from Aleph-Bet—with a “slightly soiled” box—for $3,500.