Yes, Looks Count, Especially with Books: a Conversation with Adrienne Kitts

by Barbara Basbanes Richter  

Though the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is comforting when it comes to forging new relationships, books are very much critiqued by their outward appearance. In fact, “decorative covers are part of the narrative,” explained Virginia-based proprietor of Austin Abbey Rare Books Adrienne Horowitz Kitts while preparing for the forthcoming Boston Book Print and Ephemera Fair. “That’s why I’m always on the hunt for the best copies of particular editions. An imperfect copy means the overall message of that particular work is, at least in some part, destroyed. I investigate and evaluate every piece of information available on a particular book before adding it to my catalog.”

Kitts owes much of her meticulous approach to bookselling from her training as a physiologist and molecular biologist at the University of California at Davis and Cornell University, followed by eighteen years in the public sector as a science writer for the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health. Though her scientific pursuits were rewarding, books were ever-present. “My childhood home in Long Beach, California, was always filled with books. Even as a ten-year-old, I cherished the trips I took with my father to scour the stacks at Acres of Books to build his collection of modern firsts,” she recalled. “My step-mother was an art historian, which meant frequent trips to the Getty, the LA County Museum, and the Huntington Library.

Then, life threw Kitts a curveball; diagnosed with a chronic immune disorder, she found herself wondering how to best to face this next chapter in her life. “I decided that life was too short not to professionally pursue one of the greatest passions in my life —books.”

Kitts turned to her new profession with the same attention to detail she devoted to her scientific inquiries. After attending a few events held by the Washington Rare Book Group, she was ready to take the plunge. “I knew that there was a lot I didn’t know, so in 2014 I reached out to Dale Sorenson [owner-turned-consultant for Waverly Rare Books in Falls Church, Virginia] and asked if he would allow me to intern with him, and happily, he obliged.” Sorenson taught her the finer points of valuation, condition, and how to write sharp catalog descriptions. An intensive seminar program at the 2015 Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) provided further instruction and solidified Kitts’ desire to eventually open her own business.

Thus fortified, Kitts returned home and began building stock by selling the high points of her personal collection, including her first major purchase, a first American edition of John Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions. Was it heartbreaking to part with her own beloved treasures in order to launch her business? Yes and no. “I loved my books but I wasn’t enjoying them enough,” Kitts explained. “I wanted more. I wanted the freedom to explore new avenues for collecting and I just couldn’t do it while keeping my current collection.” Focusing her inaugural collection on Americana and the decorative bindings of the nineteenth century, Kitts gathered a knockout collection of rare books and ephemera to launch Austin Abbey Rare Books in 2015.

“The [online only] business is named for Edwin Austin Abbey, an American and naturalized British illustrator influenced by William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites. He excelled at book cover design—notably for Selections from the Poetry of Robert Herrick (Harper, 1882) and Land of the Midnight Sun (Harper, 1882)—by referencing the contents without being too abstract or too literal. Now, they are as much a part of the book as the text.” In fact, Kitts said Abbey’s binding design was instrumental in galvanizing sales for the book, which motivated publishers to enlist artists to create similar covetable covers. “People saw these beautiful books and wanted them on their shelves, even if they never read them.”

Kitts prides herself on being a “curator of collections,” applying scientific methodology to everything from selecting books to setting up her booth for book fairs. “Nothing is left to chance when it comes to setting up a book display,” she explained. “I set up my full booth display at home beforehand, photograph everything, then label and box each book as it will appear on the shelves at the fair.”

A well-planned exhibit booth can be the difference between inking a sale and missing a golden opportunity. “You want any visually striking books to grab a customer’s attention,” Kitts described. “They won’t do that sitting on a shelf spine out. Customers at a book fair, especially the larger fairs, are overwhelmed by choice, so you want your display to have the greatest visual impact on a customer possible.”

In the final analysis, looks count. “You may have fantastic books to sell, but if people don’t see them, they can’t buy them,” Kitts said, fully acknowledging that book collectors are very much visual creatures indeed.

To enlarge books with a description and price, click on the desired image then hover over the enlarged image

Adrienne Kitts at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair

Adrienne Kitts at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair