What’s Your Greatest Antique Book or Ephemera Find?

Looking for the perfect summer read?  Or just the perfect read for book and ephemera enthusiasts?  Then you must check out Rebecca Rego Barry’s fantastic new work, Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places.  Rebecca is the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine, a glossy quarterly for book and fine art collectors, dealers, curators, and librarians. She is also the chief contributor to the magazine’s daily blog and in charge of its social media. Her debut book, published by Voyageur Press in December 2015, is a collection of stories about people’s greatest book and paper scores.  Some were pure luck, others the result of years or lifetimes of searching.  All all engaging, thrilling, and educational - and provide true hope that the next great find is out there, just waiting to be discovered.  

Rebecca will be a very special guest at the upcoming Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair.  This event, one of the countries largest regional antiquarian book fairs, features more than 100 quality antiquarian book and ephemera dealers from all over the country, as well as Canada and Europe.  It will be held at the new and easily accessible Brooklyn Expo Center on September 9th-11th, 2016.  Rebecca will be signing her book and talking with guests on Saturday, September 10th from noon to 3pm.   Do not miss this opportunity to meet one of the rising stars in the antique book and ephemera community!   

Rebecca was kind enough to speak with A New Look At Old Books about her latest publication and the background behind it.  Here’s what she had to say!

ANLAOB:  What inspired you to write this book?

Rebecca:  Honestly, the book wasn’t my idea. An editor at Quarto cold-pitched it to me. One of the company’s imprints had published a couple of similar books about antiques found in attics—a la “Antiques Roadshow”—and he floated the idea of doing something similar with books. I was surprised—and delighted, of course. But I felt sure it could be done, based on the handful of stories I had already heard from booksellers and collectors while working for Fine Books. 
 
ANLAOB:  How did you gather the stories:  did you reach out to colleagues, and/or had they reached out to you over time with these tales?

Rebecca:  I started out with a handful of stories that I had heard or read about in the past few years, the ones that received major media attention, like when bookseller Ken Sanders discovered a fifteenth-century book at a charity appraisal event in Sandy, Utah. Then I perused all of the past issues of Fine Books because we do a collector profile in each issue, and we specifically ask about “great finds,” so there were a few there to mine. I reached out to the antiquarian booksellers, book collectors, and special collections librarians that I’ve worked with, met at book fairs, etc. and asked if any had a tale to tell. I also posted a request on some rare book-related electronic listservs and social media. It really didn’t take long to amass about 70 possibilities, and several more trickled in after that, via word of mouth.  
 
ANLAOB:  Can you share with us how you edited the different stories so they all fit together so nicely as a collection?

Rebecca:  I was really lucky in that regard, because there was so much variety in the stories, not only in how/where (flea markets, attics, garage sales, etc.) finds were made and who (booksellers, collectors, librarians) made them, but also in the type of find, whether purely a financial gain, or a historically important discovery, or simply a find with sentimental value. I didn’t worry much about chapter order or how one story speaks to another, which, some readers tell me, makes the book terrific for “dipping into” for a chapter or two here and there. If they fit together nicely, it’s because all of the tales are rooted in the thrill of the hunt and the joy of discovery. 

ANLAOB:  How long, start to finish, did it take to complete this project?

Rebecca:  From contract to completed manuscript, it took about 15 months, and from there another 7 months in production with copyediting, etc. The tight turnaround required me to treat the research and writing like any other assignment on deadline—a certain number of hours invested, or words written, every day until the task was finished. Which suits me, as I’m very self-directed, and I can work from just about anywhere. 
 
ANLAOB:  Were there some steps that were more challenging, or time consuming, than you anticipated?

Rebecca:  I blindly tackled the project by collecting stories or names of people who might have stories and then I began researching and interviewing in one large batch, which lasted about 3 months. I’d interview one, two, three people a day sometimes, for months! I wanted to gather it all and then figure out how to organize it later, and that method worked pretty well. After that, I set a writing goal of 300 words per day—later upped to 500, and when the deadline loomed, 750—which I faithfully followed. To me the biggest challenge was undertaking a project like this while still editing and blogging for Fine Books. There were many late nights.   
 

 
 

ANLAOB:  Which of the stories most deeply resonated with you?

Rebecca:  Wow, that’s hard to say. As someone who previously worked in an understaffed archive with some amazing, significant manuscripts still unprocessed and unknown to scholars, the chapter about the Revolutionary War manuscript found in a NYC historic house museum’s attic a few years ago certainly resonated. You can read a version of that chapter in Smithsonian online by clicking here.  

ANLAOB:  Did you discover any unexpected themes, lessons, or learnings among all the different stories?

Rebecca:  It’s really wonderful and maybe a bit surprising that so many of the interviewees—even those that made thousands of dollars from their find—were less concerned with the financial reward than they were with the elation of spotting something great in a hidden corner or picking up something in a junk shop on a hunch and then, with a bit of research, determining that they had triumphed. That’s pretty cool. Also, so many of my interviewees referenced Larry McMurtry’s famous line, “Anything can be anywhere,” from his novel, Cadillac Jack. It’s a mantra for many, and after hearing so many of these “barn finds,” I can’t help but believe it myself.  

ANLAOB:  Can you share with us your greatest antiquarian book or ephemera "score" ?

Rebecca:  That’s an easy one! I talk about it in the book’s introduction. In the summer of 1999, while on vacation in Lenox, Massachusetts, I stopped at a church book sale where hardcovers were priced at $1 each. I didn’t know much about old books then—I worked in book publishing, so my life was all about “new” books. I unearthed a hardcover edition in dust jacket (both in very fine condition) of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and, being a fan of his work, bought it. Months later I learned that the book was not only a first edition but very likely owned by World War II journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner William Shirer. One of his press passes was tucked inside. Score!    

ANLAOB:  If you are indeed a collector as well, can you tell us about “the one that got away" for you?

Rebecca:  I am a collector, though not a diligent one, mainly because I’ll have two children to put through college in 8-10 years. But I peruse antiquarian and rare book catalogs as they come in, I check online listings occasionally, and I attend a few book fairs a year, where I invariably purchase a book or two. I guess you could say I rely on serendipity. My primary area of interest is 19th- and early 20th-century surgical books, especially those with illustrations.    
 
ANLAOB:  What's next on your professional "to-do" docket?

Rebecca:  I’m still editing Fine Books and I do some freelance writing about books and history for a few other publications, including the Guardian, Slate, and JSTOR Daily. A chapter I wrote about the Victorian-era writers and sisters, Susan and Anna Warner, will be published in an anthology titled From Page to Place: American Literary Tourism and the Afterlives of Authors (University of Massachusetts Press) in February 2017. Aside from that, I’m still scouting around for my next book project!   

ANLAOB:  Many thanks for your time, and looking forward to meeting you in September!

The third annual Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Brooklyn Expo Center, on Friday, September 9th from 6-9pm; Saturday, September 10th from 11am-7pm; and Sunday, September 11th from 11am-5pm.  A variety of ticketing options are available ranging from $7 for a Sunday only ticket to $25 for the preview opening to benefit 826NYC, a program which teaches children how to write creatively; for more information and to purchase tickets please click here.  The Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair is sponsored AbeBooks and brought to you by Book and Paper Fairs. 
 
Book and Paper Fairs produces the top book and ephemera fairs in the Northeast US.  Our professionally managed events have a long history of bringing together the finest buyers and sellers in the industry, and are held in major locations including Boston, New York City, Brooklyn, Concord, NH, and Lexington, MA. For more information and a calendar of our shows, please visit www.bookandpaperfairs.com.