by Barbara Basbanes Richter
Peter Luke knows what you want, even if you don’t know what you want—yet. As a familiar face at the Book and Paper Fairs for almost three decades, the dealer specializing in Americana and ephemera can usually be found in a large room at the fair that he’s crammed with all sorts of treasures selected specifically for his waiting customers.
“I’ll bring twelve tables and a glass case and fill them with material that I know has visually-appealing graphics and will display well among a sea of papers,” Luke said recently. First-time visitors may feel a little overwhelmed when perusing Luke’s veritable cave of wonders, but there is a method to the madness. “The bins are organized by subject matter and are broken down by region and genre. I’ve been doing shows long enough that I have a good sense of what people are looking for and can quickly put my hand on something that I think will pique their interest,” he explained. “I always stock the stacks with my regular customers in mind: regional librarians, museum curators, and collector representatives.”
And yet, a sizable group of fair regulars only want to see what’s new, so Luke routinely stocks a number of bins full of unsorted new arrivals. “People still love to turn up something unexpected,” Luke explained. “It’s part of the fair-going experience.”
Based in New Baltimore, New York, Luke started out in as a collector in his own right before turning to the dealer end of things. “Back in the 1980s, I collected antique bottles manufactured in and around Albany, where I’ve spent my whole life. It started out as a hobby until a friend saw that I had an eye for quality and suggested I try selling at local fairs.” A successful outing at the Brimfield Antique Show opened Luke’s eyes. “I realized I might be able to make some money doing something I loved.” Still, he eased into the world of ephemera dealing before cutting loose from his day job entirely. And when he did, “some days I was terrified—had I made the right choice? Soon enough I realized I had.”
Luke has been in the business long enough to see trends come and go and come back again. “I buy things today that I wouldn’t have given a second look twenty years ago, and other items that I once thought were so special have become run-of-the-mill.” Such as? “Anything related to social history and movements, such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, and Chinese exclusion are hot right now.” Promotional brochures touting the development of various regions remains strong, as do pieces relating to the American West, but it’s not all serious, either. “People like to collect all sorts of things—pictures of cats, early cocktail mixing manuals, ethnic cooking, and original source material like handwritten letters, manuscripts, scrapbooks, and business archives. Unique handwritten pieces that tell a story always sell.”
Though he loves helping people build collections, Luke despises the term “collectible” because “it usually means that the item in question was created for the single purpose of being collected, and that’s generally a red flag in my book.” Beanie babies or autographs of living presidents, for example, are not the gold mine they are often touted as being. “I would advise collectors to look for items that were meant to be used, even temporarily. Investment pieces hardly ever pan out, and these markets are notoriously fickle.” Also, “don’t collect like the Joneses. If everyone is collecting in a particular subject, those items will naturally become more expensive, and if you’re late to that market you may not get the greatest stuff anyway.”
When it comes to bargaining for a deal, Luke says there’s a certain psychology involved. “Most dealers will play the bargaining game. People come to expect it, so you have to price your inventory accordingly. Plus, when you nudge on the numbers, customers see you as being flexible and are more likely to buy. Someone once asked me if my prices were etched in stone. I said no, they’re scrawled in mud.”
Most importantly, Luke prides himself on helping customers find what they didn’t know they wanted. “A lot of it comes down to listening to the customer and figuring out their interests. They may come in looking for x, and I may not have it, but I may have y and z that will bring depth, nuance, and interest to their collection.” And who doesn’t want that?
Come tell Peter Luke what you’re looking for November 17 at the Boston Book, Print and Ephemera Fair in Boston.