Pia Oliver holds open a first edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Inside is a supposed signature by the author. “We know it’s fake, probably by Eugene Field’s son, but,” says Oliver, turning a few pages and indicating ink illustrations of children that are not in any other copies, “who drew these? Field? Stevenson? There’s some detective work involved too.”
I am standing in Randall House Rare Books, tucked away in an old adobe building known as the Gonzales-Ramirez House on the corner of Laguna and Canon Perdido streets. Ten minutes ago I asked the obvious question, “Why do people collect rare books?” After all, when a new hardcover edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses sells for $19.95 at Amazon, why pay a bookseller $3,500 for a copy with a forged signature and the “Lower portion of spine leather split over hinge?”
Oliver, who runs Randall’s Web site, among other things, did not respond by reading a passage from a book. Instead, she showed me what’s inside each book. Stevenson’s book is only one among dozens of books and documents Oliver presented to me. But it was as I took Stevenson’s book into my hand and stared down at the drawings that I realized Oliver’s answer to my question: It is not the words inside a rare book that interest collectors, but the very books themselves.
Ralph Sipper, owner of Ralph Sipper/Books, said that people who collect rare books are interested in the books as artifacts. “People buy them for the same reason that people buy a Picasso. They enjoy it, show it to their friends, admire it.” At Randall House, owner Ron Randall demonstrated just this by showing me a personal favorite, a collection of books by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (best known for their Mutiny on the Bounty series). Randall had mentioned that while his collection is “somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” much of it has connections to the West Coast. Now he pulled out the most recent find, a first edition of Her Daddy’s Best Ice Cream in nearly perfect (to the layperson’s eye) condition and commented that James Norman Hall wrote the poems in the book for his daughter, Nancy, who was married at All Saints-by-the-Sea in Santa Barbara.
So what makes a book “rare”? Margarita Philosophica, an encyclopedia dating from 1504, sells well into the four-digit range; however, age itself does not determine the price. According to Sipper, the value of a book depends on three factors: importance, rarity, and condition. In terms of importance, first editions, the first copies ever printed, tend to be the most valuable to collectors. Lee Campbell, who runs Joseph The Provider, said, “There’s just something about holding a first edition in your hand.” Looking at online catalogs one sees that the “something” can make a first edition of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury sell for as much as $35,000. Rarity can further raise the value, of course. A first edition of Faulkner’s first book, The Marble Faun, only 500 copies printed, can go for as much as $125,000. When it comes to condition, cracked hinges and “splitting at the folds” can make that $35,000 copy of The Sound and the Fury drop to $12,500.
Online catalogs have also transformed the rare book business. Used bookstores have not done well with the advent of the Internet; many have closed down due to the decreased number of walk-ins. The effect has been similar with rare booksellers: Foot traffic has declined significantly since 1980, the end of the period that Sipper described as “the zenith of the rare book industry in Santa Barbara.” Campbell, who now runs Joseph The Provider from home, holding hours by appointment only, concurred. “People aren’t as interested in looking through the books themselves. They just go online and look at the catalogs. There used to be large antiquarian book fairs where people would go to trade books. But they’ve gotten much smaller now.”
Campbell keeps an online inventory and Sipper does most of his business through a mailing list. Randall is the only exclusively rare bookseller in Santa Barbara to still keep regular store hours. “People looking for books on early American history now order online from booksellers on the East Coast,” said Randall. However, he conceded that the Internet hasn’t been completely bad for him. His own online catalog has expanded his customer base, “so it’s been a bit of a mixed thing.” Oliver added, “Antarctica is the only continent we haven’t shipped to.”
I hand A Child’s Garden of Verses back to Oliver. I had held something in my hand that may have once been held by Stevenson himself, read by his stepdaughter, opened to the title page, and inscribed by the son of a famous poet hoping to make a little more money off of his father’s name - and laid onto a table at some unknown time by some unknown artist who took the time to draw 15 illustrations not seen in any other book. And with that, a simple collection of poems becomes a small piece of history. A rare book.
411: Randall House Rare Books is located at 835 Laguna St., 963-1909, email@example.com, Web site: randallhouserarebooks.com. Joseph The Provider is a home-based business, 683-2603, P.O Box 90, Santa Barbara 93102, firstname.lastname@example.org. Inventory catalog available online through the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. Ralph Sipper Books can be found at 10 W. Micheltorena, 962-2141, email@example.com