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The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the more philosophical books of the Old Testament, with wise sayings and accurate judgments of the human condition. One of its last pronouncements is the famous dictum “Of the making of books there is no end.” As a bibliophile, a lover of books, this prospect is heartening. When I am contacted by a client looking to sell merchandise, my first question is always, ‘are there any books?’ An affirmative answer begins a journey unlike any other.

Only the individual who appreciates what a book provides truly understands. One book will call out for an acquaintance, a dozen books will gather companions, and a thousand books will fill the winds with many voices all calling out for further reinforcements. A brigade of books, an army of silent soldiers, bound in covers proclaiming and protecting their contents.

There comes a time, as the 16th century English diarist Samuel Pepys relates, that his library is so full, to add a title means to discard another one. I can fully sympathize, as the books crowd upon the shelves, new ones added require ‘culling’ or weeding of others. So many books, so little time.

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure to look through hundreds and hundreds of books. On Easter Sunday I spent the entire day with a New York gentleman who was consolidating his multiple storage units into one. He called Saturday night in semi-desperation, offered me whatever books he was not keeping, if I would take them away. Otherwise, they would be consigned to a dumpster. This was an absolute electric assignment, and I met the man at ten in the morning. By six that evening I had transported eighty boxes of books to the shop, the price was right-–my labor. And then came the moment of truth, each book evaluated and either kept or donated. On Monday morning, seventy of the eighty boxes were taken for donation; the gentleman received a nice charity deduction, and I had ten boxes of books that I now owned. There were some real treasures, but the true excitement was in the discovery, the exploration of what was there.

The following week hard on the heels of this haul, I was invited to view and purchase portions of a library that was being sold. Floor to ceiling shelves across a wide wall, inviting sets of leather bound titles, folios with splendid bindings, curious titles not commonly seen. Much of the collection was not in good condition, but the books themselves were not the common fare. I was delighted, and started filling the boxes removing the books from the shelves and ferrying them to my shop. This is back breaking work.

In the 70s I enjoyed a ten-year career breaking and training young thoroughbreds in Middleburg, Virginia. The stables I worked for were the classy ‘nurseries’ where the high-ticket Keeneland and Saratoga yearlings were schooled. Everything was done just right, down to the raking of the shed row in intricate designs after the horses had been stalled. You learned how to do tasks with precision and efficiency, that mucking out a stall was also an art-–each pitch of the fork should count. My credo then was ‘if you are going to shovel manure, shovel the best manure.” I still have the same credo. Books are heavy, and good books weigh as much as lesser books. If I am going to lug books, I am going to lug the best books.

Purchasing books in volume necessitates the decision of what books to remove so that I have adequate space for the new recruits. Though the focus of the library has remained scholars’ books, the ingathering has been towards rarer and less common titles. Once I purchase a library, each book is examined, cleaned, repaired when necessary and when possible, researched, priced, and placed on the shelf.

It is in this process that I come to know the book, and the book comes to know me. While I am not a book conservator or book binder, I can, and do accomplish small repairs, deftly and lovingly. Spines can be reglued, covers cleaned, pages mended, gutters strengthened, leather treated. Every book that comes into my shop is acknowledged. This ritual of examination and discovery is the intimacy that you can share only with book that you own. You cannot have a relationship with a borrowed book; it is almost like an illicit affair, impossible in good conscience. And there are many times when I reluctantly sell a book I wish I had kept.

One difficulty of my enterprise is that I am seized with anxiety when I see people rifling through the bookshelves. Books demand an etiquette of responsibility when you handle them. You must take the time and more important have the innate respect that requires you to handle them carefully. Books break from careless handling and there is nothing that more incenses me when I straighten shelves than to find a book damaged by a browser, who has broken off a cover, torn a spine head, or jammed a book onto a shelf tearing the dustjacket, or creasing the pages.

Books are companions unlike any others. They are a perfect package, like an egg, they cannot be improved upon. Portable, magical, tactile, the lives of books are as individual as those who authored them, and those who owned them. Traces of their stories, their provenance is oftentimes found on the first few blank pages. An inscription, dedication, comment, given by so and so to whom, and when and why, and where, add to the voice of a book. Not infrequently there are odd pieces slipped into the pages, pressed flowers, photographs, tickets, calendars, etc. Mostly, my policy is to leave them with the book, with certain exceptions, separating the ephemera giving it its own life. And before you ask, no, contrary to legends, I have not yet ever found money inside a book.

Of what value is intellectual curiosity? A pursuit of discovery that constantly delights in the interweaving of a web of life, its threads and patterns over millennium of history and culture embracing our fragile globe. Until our recent memory, such records were held between the covers of books. There are among us a population who even in this instantaneous connective information world, cannot live without books. We are a fortunate few, finding satisfaction, even elation, in a fellowship with books, where one book will call out for another.

The Pepys Dilemma of full bookshelves is with us still. We need good homes for our books. Lastly, a reminder that the 2010 Connecticut Antiquarian Booksellers Directory is now available on-line, booksellers statewide, and their specialties. Visit or stop by Miriam Green for a hard-copy.


  Editor’s note: Susan Alon, proprietor of MiRIAMGREEN Antiquarian Bookshop & Gallery, in her former life was Head of Special Collections at Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis and Secretary to the Historical Collections, Yale School of Medicine. She is a rare book consultant for Lyman Allyn Art Museum (New London) and a certified appraiser. Locally she offers appraisal workshops on books and is available for Library Friends’ groups seeking to raises funds with an appraisal event. If you are interested in arranging a library or community event, contact her at 88 East Main Street, Clinton, 860-664-4200.  


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