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Building Your Rare Book Collection During a Pandemic

By Audrey Golden. Dec 29, 2020. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Collecting

A global health pandemic is devastating for a wide variety of reasons, from tragic illnesses and deaths to the closures of beloved community businesses. Of course, not being able to add to your rare book collection during a pandemic due to limited travel and funds is probably the least of your worries. Yet we also know that thinking about your rare book collection can be a welcome reprieve from a world that feels as if it’s in chaos with no clear light at the end of the tunnel. So, if you’re following all of the social distancing rules, and you’re taking the pandemic seriously, sheltering at home can offer a new chance to fall back in love with your collection and to dream up new ways of adding to it. So, in the spirit of self-care, we want to give you some tips for building your rare book collection during a pandemic. We hope these ideas will help you to get through the long months ahead until a vaccine becomes available, and we also hope that you’ll be able to use some of the tips and tricks even when you return to book-buying travel again in what will hope will be the not-too-distant future.

Farewell-to-ArmsBook Fairs Have Gone Online!

Have you always looked forward to traveling for antiquarian book fairs and art book fairs across the world? While it’s true many of the annual international antiquarian book fairs are not being held in person during the pandemic, many of them have shifted to new online versions. We know, we know: browsing just isn’t the same when you can’t spot the rare dust jacket on that edition you’ve been searching for in a case across the room, or when you can’t hold a book in your hands to inspect its condition. But for now, virtual book fairs still offer a way to indulge in some of the commercial joys that all of those international antiquarian book fairs offer, and there’s a clear upside: you can plan to spend the extra money you would have used for air or train travel, hotels, and restaurant meals on more books for your collection.

Some of the annual book fairs have already taken place in virtual marketplaces, but others are still to come. If there’s a particular fair you attend on an annual or otherwise regular basis, be sure to check out its website for news about upcoming virtual book fairs.

Auction Houses Have Online Bidding Options

Sure, it’s great fun to go to a rare book auction in person and to get caught up in the rush of the moment when you’re surrounded by dozens of other rare book collectors who just might be your competition for Lot 727. Yet buying at auction online can still be exhilarating. If you’ve only attended in-person rare book auctions, you should know that many auction houses are still conducting their auctions at the physical auction house, but all bidders must engage remotely. What this means is that bidders often can stream a video of the auctioneer—looking just like she or he would if you were there in person—but you’re watching on your computer screen instead. Most auction houses permit online live bidding, allowing you to replicate some of the adrenaline rush you always get from a rare book auction.

Pandemic or not, most auction houses have been permitting online live bidding for quite some time and are likely to continue doing so once the pandemic has eased. Accordingly, if you find out you really have a taste for online auctions, you can keep bidding from the comfort of your home even after it becomes safe to travel to your favorite rare book auction houses. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention, but also offer a brief warning about, eBay bidding. The long-time online marketplace can be a source for rare book collectors, but buyer beware: you might not be getting what it is you think you’re getting if you don’t purchase from a reputable rare bookseller.

Umberto Eco Il nomeRare Bookstores Are Online

Even before any mention of a global pandemic, many booksellers have shifted to online retail, and many offer books through some of the larger rare book sites like AbeBooks and Biblio. If you have a favorite rare bookshop or two that you regularly visited in person, run a quick internet search to find out if that store is operating online. Even if they’re not operating online, or if the shop only has a limited amount of its inventory listed for online browsing, we urge you to get in touch with the bookseller. Believe us when we say that the global pandemic has also hurt rare booksellers. Many shops rely on buyers who visit in person, and on tourists who visit cities with large rare bookstore populations like Seoul, New York, Mexico City, London, and Tokyo.

So call or email your favorite rare bookseller, tell them what you’re looking for, and see if you can make a purchase. And your newly acquire rare book will look so much better on your bookshelf since you can gaze adoringly at it while you continue to work from home. This pandemic has devastated families and communities in so many ways, but rare book collecting can still bring a little bit of light and joy to our lives even amidst the worst of times.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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How can I identify a first edition? Where do I learn about caring for books? How should I start collecting? Hear from librarians about amazing collections, learn about historic bindings or printing techniques, get to know other collectors. Whether you are just starting or looking for expert advice, chances are, you'll find something of interest on blogis librorum.

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