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The Bookseller’s Flair

My last post explored the significance of libraries and the unique personal collections we treasure at home. But how do you go about building one?

Walter Benjamin writes of the “thrill of acquisition” in ‘Unpacking My Library’, his jovial essay on book collecting. Acquiring books is by no means “a matter of money or expert knowledge alone” – one must have “flair”. The act of buying a book is, in his eyes, a means of ‘rescuing’ it:


One of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book … because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and he bought it to give it its freedom.


It’s true that often the dog-eared volume slipped forlornly between stacks of glitzy hardbacks can tug irresistibly at the heartstrings. And yet, some of my ‘finest memories’ are when I’ve been recommended something in a bookshop I’d never have spotted or bought on my own. This is something the soulless efficiency of Amazon can never quite replicate, despite its cunning algorithms.

Samuel Johnson thought them “generous liberal-minded men”; John Dunton lamented their being “taken for little better than a pack of knaves and atheists”. Roald Dahl paints a similarly cynical picture in his short story The Bookseller, featuring William Buggage who swindles widows with fake invoices for pornographic literature supposedly owed by their late husbands. Whatever else, a bookseller is rarely boring. The best combine astoundingly comprehensive knowledge of their field with idiosyncratic taste and a gift for storytelling.


Book of Booksellers


Sheila Markham’s A Book of Booksellers: Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade pays great tribute to these marvellous intermediaries. Stemming from her weekly series ‘Endpaper’ in the Bookdealer, Markham has collected interviews with “influential and colourful figures” under humorous chapter headings – ‘The Endless Endeavour’, ‘Not going for the Jugular’, ‘Hiroshige Paid my Rent’, ‘Arsenic and Old Ladies’. They highlight the numerous ways of excelling at the trade, and are packed with recommendations and reminiscences.

Inspired by this, I have picked two booksellers as my own examples: one selling new books, the other, rare. Very different in style, but I hope you will enjoy the insights they offer – a glimmer of the “flair” that still exists to this day.


Wolfgang Kaiser 25 years


Interview with Wolfgang J Kaiser of Tusculum Rare Books Ltd.

How did you get into bookselling?

Wolfgang: From 1975 until 2004 I was living in Frankfurt am Main working as a lawyer. For the bicentenary of Frederick II, king of Prussia’s, death in 1986, I was asked by the Historic Museum in Frankfurt to curate an exhibition with my collection of prints  and paintings under the title ‘FRIEDRICH DER GROSSE / Sein Bild im Wandel der Zeiten’ (Fredrick the Great / His Image in the Course of Time). A visitor of the exhibition sent me with his thanks for the guided tour a rare book catalogue containing a. o. some books on Frederick the Great. It was an important catalogue of a famous rare bookseller in which many bibliophile Greek and Latin editions, illustrated books and magnificent bindings fascinated me. It was the first time I had a catalogue of a rare bookseller with such impressive content in my hands. In my free time I started to collect and study such catalogues – and after one year I decided to purchase some fine rare books. In 1989 I opened a little bookshop in Frankfurt for my wife and published the first rare book catalogue ‘DAS SCHÖNE BUCH  / THE BOOK BEAUTIFUL’ (German & English) with 186 items (Classics, Literature, Illustrated Books, Fridericiana, Fine Bindings, Varia).


Das Schone Buch


Tell us a little about Tusculum Rare Books

Wolfgang: In 1999 I founded a rare bookselling company in London: Wolfgang J Kaiser Limited, which changed name in 2002 to ‘TUSCULUM RARE BOOKS LIMITED’, based from 2003 onwards at the address 34-36 Maddox Street, London W1S 1PD. A young Italian specialist for medieval illuminated manuscripts looked after the shop when I was not in London. The main subjects of the company were: Incunables (lat.: incunabula, i.e. books  printed in the earliest stages of book printing, in the “cradle”, in the second half of 15th century) – Greek and Latin Classics – Aldines (books printed by the Aldine Press of Aldus Manutius starting in Venice in 1495, famous for first use of small books in octavo size and for introduction of “italics”) –  Illustrated Books – Fridericiana & History – World Literature (German, English, Russian, French, Italian) – Fine Bindings – Private Presses & Modern Book Art. The company published (until 2015) 21 catalogues and several lists for book fairs or about special subjects. The company took part in book fairs in London, New York, Milan, Berlin, Frankfurt and Stuttgart.

What are five personal characteristics you think are important as a bookseller?

Wolfgang: Passion for the old book

Hunting or intensively looking for and finding rare books

Thoroughly researching

Knowledge of books and love to write catalogues

Understanding the collector’s passion and creating a good relationship with him

What book were you saddest to say goodbye to?

Wolfgang: Alexander Pushkin’s Stichotworenija (Poems), St. Petersburg 1826. First edition of his first collected lyrics, the first in Russian language, which made him Russia’s most celebrated poet. I sold it out of my Frankfurt Catalogue XVII, no.69a (1998). This book in such a good state and in a Russian contemporary binding is of extreme rarity. The price would be today more than ten times as much. But both of these important business reasons have nothing to do with my fascination for this great book for which I was even prepared to learn Russian which, hélas, at the end after three visits in St. Petersburg was not possible because of too much involvement in my other profession at the time (law firm in Frankfurt).


Кабинет А.С. Пушкина

Alexander Pushkin’s writing table


What was your favourite book as a child?

Wolfgang: Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe. 1820




What book fairs would you recommend attending?

Wolfgang: Milan Book Fair (until 2008), Paris Book Fair, New York Book Fair and Stuttgart Book Fair


Paris book fair 2015

Paris Book Fair 2015


What do you look for in a book?

Wolfgang: It must speak to me, it must thrill me, it must touch me – and then I am looking for beauty, truth … and what propels me out of everyday life!

What interesting poetry books have you encountered?

Wolfgang: Anacreon. Theiou Melae. Parma, Bodoni, 1785. (Tusculum Cat. XVI, no. 10)

Horace. Carminum libri quattuor. Birmingham, Baskerville, 1770.

(Frankfurt Katalog XVI, no. 24)

Dante. La Divina Commedia. Private Press book of Bremer Presse 1921

(Frankfurt Katalog XVI, no. 27)

Keats. Poems. London 1817 (Frankfurt Katalog XVI, no. 35)

See above no. 4: Pushkin’s poetry, 1826

Goethe. West- oestlicher Divan. Stuttgart 1819 (Tusc. Cat. X, Part I, no.15)

Schiller. Gedichte (Poems). Leipzig 1804-05 (Tusculum Cat. IX, no. 37)

Hölderlin. Gedichte (Poems). Stuttgart 1826 (Tusculum Cat. IX, no. 42)

Heine. Gedichte (Poems).Berlin 1822 (Tusculum cat. XXI, no. 11)

Rilke. Duineser Elegien. Leipzig 1923  (Tusculum cat. XVI, no. 22)

Giacomo Leopardi. Canti.  1835

Gottfried Benn. Ausgewählte Gedichte 1911-1936 (selected poems).

Berlin 1936 (Brigitte Reh, Kat. 7, no. 6)

Paul Celan. Todesfuge (Death fugue). Vienna 1948 (Tusc. cat. XXI, no. 3)


Keats 1817


What book is considered the ‘holy grail’ – very rare and desirable?

Wolfgang: Guttenberg Bible. Mainz/Germany 1454.

Dante. Divina Commedia. First edition. Foligno/Italy 1472

Aristotle. Opera (graece). Venice, Aldus Manutius, 1495-1498.

Editio princeps. (my Frankfurt Katalog XVI, no. 1)

Cervantes. Don Quixote. First edition 1605

Shakespeare. The First Folio. 1623

William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, printed on Vellum. 1894-96


Dante Comedia


What purchase have you been most happy about, personally?

Wolfgang:The purchase of Aristotle. Opera (graece). Venice, Aldus Manutius, 1495-1498 in a Christie’s sale in London in 1994, together with my son Cornelius.


Aristotle Opera


If people want to see beautiful rare books, where would you recommend visiting?

Wolfgang: Tusculum Rare Books Ltd in London / Berlin – and only if this is not sufficient:

Thomas Scheler and Jean de Proyart, Paris

Heribert Tenschert, Bibermühle / Switzerland

Mediolanum di Lucca Pozzi, Milan

Maggs. Bros., London

Do you have to be very wealthy to be a book-collector?

Wolfgang: Not at all! It goes without saying that you must have some wealth to buy a Shakespeare’s First Folio, but there are so many other books where content and beautiful appearance (typography, illustration, paper and binding) are still in the reach of the ordinary people…

Is the trade suffering? Are rare books still as much in demand?

Wolfgang: This is a question which is asked by the rare booksellers themselves more than by anyone else. The answers will be given according to their optimistic or pessimistic outlook. Of course, there are ups and downs, e.g. in Italy for the time being is business very low, due to the general bad state of the economy, but also due to internal difficulties and scandals in this special market (you might have heard of the great book theft in the Girolamini Library in Naples two years ago in which the director Mr. De Caro and many Italian dealers are involved). As Italy is a very important rare book market, the actual situation affects many dealers who have – like me – many business contacts with this country.


Girolamini Library


‘The Resplendent Thing’ – an interview with John Clegg of the London Review Bookshop


Eliot Ara Vos Prec


I remember the sunlight on those large, fine pages and a breathless exhilaration as I came away with it – unable NOT to read it in the Market Place after happening on it in Galloway and Porter’s bookshop – spreading the resplendent thing open: lost in wonder and strangeness and delight

– I.A. Richards


John Clegg: “In 1920, I.A. Richards discovers T.S. Eliot’s Ara Vos Prec, his third collection or his first Selected Poems, published by John Rodker’s Ovid Press in an edition of 264. I’ve held a copy myself, at Peter Ellis’s bookshop on Cecil Court, and concur with Richards; the pages are large and fine. The book’s square (like recent titles from Picador), black board covers with yellow cloth binding, a deep and rather handsome yellow (I have a pullover the exact same colour). There’s a paper label gummed to the spine, and on this the title has been spelt correctly, but inside it is Ara Vus Prec – Eliot: “The correct title of the book is Ara Vos Prec. It only happened to be Vus on the title page because I don’t know Provençal, and I was quoting from an Italian edition of Dante the editor of which apparently did not know Italian either.” I wonder if Richards noticed.


Eliot misspelling


“As I held it, I thought about why Richards might have picked it up. He’d probably met Eliot, briefly: when he was a student at Merton in Oxford, Eliot had given a paper to the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, of which Richards was a member. (The paper concerned ‘The Relativity of Moral Judgement’.) Richards had come across a couple of Eliot’s poems in magazines, but doesn’t seem to have been particularly impressed. And then in Galloway and Porter something had struck him, and he’d taken out his wallet (surely it wasn’t cheap), and made the bargain and was grateful for it.

“How had the book been displayed? It had only been available for a few months. (Presentation copies had been sent out in February of that year, but doubtless it took a while longer to reach bookshops.) Was the book face out – or face up, perhaps, laid flat on a table? An unprepossessing thing, if so – there’s no label on the front, all you see is the plain black cover. A bookseller’s handwritten label alongside it, on a folded piece of stiff card? Maybe that was how one found out the price.

“Or could it have migrated already to the shelves? If so, it was a lucky find of Richards’ – it’s thin enough, and the gummed label is certainly the cheapest-looking part of the whole thing. Why did he reach for him? And who else would they have had under the Es? Emerson, presumably, but anyone else? If not, perhaps to his left he was abutting Dryden. (In four years he would publish his Homage to John Dryden with the Hogarth Press.)


Homage to Dryden


“Or was Richards one of those vital customers who reads every new thing, or everything a bookseller shows him? I work as a bookseller, at the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury, and we’ve a few customers like that; and it makes the work worthwhile to think I might be putting a new Ara Vos Prec into the hands of a new I.A. Richards. And I think of Galloway and Porter, too, where as a young boy I would be turned loose in their basement, stocked with remaindered copies of Hardy Boys novels, Hardy Boys knockoffs, and ‘junior novelisations’ of bafflingly-chosen films: Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory &c. It was already on the slide, I think, at that point, but looking through my bookshelves I can still pick out the poetry titles I bought there (after I’d graduated to the first floor). The message, the resplendent thing, was still getting through.”


London Review Bookshop

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Image Credits:

Image: The Gutenberg Bible

Image credit: Jiahui Huang