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An interview with Alcuin Books, ABAA-ILAB

Biblio checks in with Alcuin Books, ABAA-ILAB to learn more about their book business, collecting interests and more! To view and shop their inventory, click here.


When did you get started in bookselling?

In 1970 I met Herb Caplan, proprietor of Argus Books who introduced me to a world of 16th and 17th Century books as well as very rare books on California and the West. Since I was in the middle of my graduate training, I naturally began selling scholarly books to universities. It was not until the 1980's that I also began to sell rare books and manuscripts as well as unusual books in many different categories.


What drew you to bookselling?

I became a book lover as a child at the Carnegie Library in East St. Louis but though we were from a relatively poor family, we did have many of the classics at home from Dickens and Twain to the best sellers of the 1940's. During my high school years, I read books on the Bible, World War II and literature. I started then with a love for reading books and eventually found there were books which had some value other than the mark-downs at the old bookstores.


Did you have any mentors in becoming a bookseller?

Herb Caplan was a mentor who could see I had absolutely no working capital, he would bankroll me with a few twenty dollar bills and let me go to thrift shops, garage sales and flea markets. In that pre-internet era, book prices were based on bookseller catalogs, prices in the now defunct AB Bookman's Weekly, and visits to antiquarian book shops which once proliferated but now cities often have only one or two. Most of what I had to learn came from trial and error but fortunately I had Carter's ABC's of Book Collecting and other guides to help me. As I became more serious, I learned a great deal from the ABAA online discuss line open only to dealers.


What are your specialties as a dealer?

I have specialized in both very rare English books from the 16th to the 19th centuries as well as rare Americana. Since I still have an open shop, my goal is to have unusual books in many categories. However, we take delight in selling to young beginning collectors books that are in the $25-50 range as well as first editions that may be in the tens of thousands.


What's the most amazing book you've ever sold?

It may sound strange that while we have had sales in the $150K range, we love unusual books but we have sold Chaucers printed in 1550, 1598, and 1602 and a first of Darwin's Origin of Species and an 1814 first of the Lewis and Clark expedition (with the original map) each for under $100K. Of course, to describe a book as amazing should indicate unusual in importance such as rarely at major auctions but highly desirable, often significant provenance, and perhaps other factors that contribute to a work's uniqueness.


What is your favorite part of being a bookseller?

While books are central to our mission, it is the customers that we meet. Whether it is the Scottish academician who recently bought a 1787 first of Robert Burns or the collector who bought a James Joyce inscribed first of Ulysses , or the universities that buy items that fit their areas of specialization, we find this wonderful. We had a professor in the shop from a major Canadian University who taught me some aspects of our 1553 Greek New Testament that I had missed. A major scholar from a major museum library enabled me to identify where a 1486 copy of Speculum was bound. Young people often have a keen eye on important modern first editions and as they have done research on their favorite authors they often become my teacher. As a member of the ABAA, I am rewarded by the collegiality that exists among our members. Whenever I have a very rare book that appears to have a unique contemporary binding, there are several I can consult who either confirm my suspicion or correct my wrong assumptions. I cannot imagine a serious experienced bookseller who would not want to be part of the ABAA.


Do you have an open storefront or have you in the past?

We opened our first open bookshop in Phoenix in 1991 near Central and Camelback Road. When light rail forced us to move, we located in 2002 to our current shop on Scottsdale Road.


If so, do/did you have any bookstore pets?

No, we do not have bookstore pets but if I had a preference I would have a bookstore cat. My mentor Herb Caplan had a large cat which wandered his shelves (occasionally knocking an item over).


What is the funniest / strangest / scariest thing that ever happened in your store?

While humor and strange things happen, they have usually involved a strange discovery. Once a person brought a book to my first shop and I bought it only to realize a little later it had been stolen from me. In our shop which has primarily books in fine or near fine condition, we occasionally hear people who wander in ask: "Is this a museum?" or "Is this a library".


What is your favorite bookshop (other than your own)?

Powells in Chicago (near the University of Chicago). Yes, there are finer rare books shops but my visits there always had books calling to me that I need yet to read.


What do you personally like to read? Collect?

I do not collect any books but love the writing of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. In the distant past, I read many classics on Medieval and Renaissance history, but now read primarily American history. When I had pneumonia nearly seven years ago, I read Caro's four volumes on LBJ and appreciate the thoroughness of his research and wonderful writing.


What's your favorite book you personally own? Would you sell it, if the price were right?

I have two paperbacks that are falling apart that I read in the mid-1960's. They are heavily underlined with notes in the margins but they changed my views of history. The first is Crane Brinton's Anatomy of Revolution and the second is C.V. Wedgewood's The Thirty Years War. Although I have read several thousand books since then, those awakened my interest in historical interpretation. Also I can include Montaigne, Machiavelli, Pepys, and a host of 18th century English writers.


What one book would you buy if price were no object?

While it would be easy to say the Vellum Gutenberg Bible, I would be content with most early Caxton printings.


If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring three books, what would they be?

In my case, I would want a King James Bible, a nicely modern edition of Shakespeare, and Donald Frame's edition of Montaigne.