Scott Vile on Bookmaking

I started collecting rare books in 1982, after graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology. I was exposed to them while taking a course in publishing from Herb Johnson, author of several books on typography, and Bruce Rogers.

After returning home for the summer, I took my first trip to the Strand Bookstore in New York City to buy a rare book. Didn’t really matter which book. Didn’t know about prices, editions, or private presses. I knew I could spend about $100.00, and that was all I had in cash for the trip from suburban New Jersey.

I had heard about the fifth floor of the Strand, but thought it was probably a rumor and just a story to scare away neophytes like me. But there it was on the sign inside the front entrance to the first floor elevator: RARE BOOKS - FIFTH FLOOR. RING BELL. What a greeting. Totally there to scare normal people away. But I had money in my pocket, and, while not dressed very well, proceeded to the FIFTH FLOOR.

When the elevator (Otis, of course) doors opened, I was immediately thrust into, and breathing, for the first time, that rarefied air that fills bookshops that sell rare books. I was out of my environment, and knew it and so did the receptionist and two employees of the Strand Rare Book Room on the FIFTH FLOOR. What was there to do? I did the first thing that came to mind. I grabbed a big book, sort of looked at it, paid my $80.00 and got my butt out of there as fast as I could. I had bought the 1932 LEC Devine Comedy of Dante Alighieri printed at the Officiana Bodoni by Hans Mardersteig. Wow.

Back in New Jersey, I had to start rounding out my collection. Since I couldn’t afford the greatest hits of rare books and typography, I had to settle for facsimiles and Dover Publications reprints. Dover was reprinting the classics, quite inexpensively, and claimed on the back of each book cover:

“We have made every effort to make this the best book possible. Our paper is opaque, with minimal show-through; it will not discolor or become brittle with age. Pages are sewn in signatures, in the method traditionally used for the best books, and will not drop out, as often happens with paperbacks held together with glue. Books open flat for easy reference. The binding will not crack or split. THIS IS A PERMANENT BOOK."
Off to the local bookstore I went (there were no Borders or Amazons back then, for those of you under 25 years of age) and there I purchased Dover editions of D. B. Updike’s Printing Types, The Grolier Club edition of Albrecht Dürer’s Of the Just Shaping of Letters, and Bruce Rogers’s Paragraphs on Printing. Now I had four books in my rare book collection.

Fast forward to 2002, twenty years later. I have acquired over the years the Updike, the Dürer, and the Rogers in the original editions. The other day I had to use an illustration from the Dürer for a lavish invitation that was to be printed letterpress. I figured it was better to use the Dover edition, as I was going to have to lay the book flat on a scanner and the soft binding would be easier to open than the Smyth sewn case bound edition. Next problem: Find the Dover edition.

Sure enough, there it was, where I usually put it, away on a shelf at home in our rather dark living room. (I’ve never understood why it’s called a “living room” when there is hardly ever anyone in there. Another subject.) Brought it to the press to scan. Opened to the title page. Covers crack open. Text signatures fall out. Glue is like dust and day old milked cereal in the bowl. The text paper has held up relatively well, but the cover is showing signs of foxing on the inside, and the lamination used on the paper covers is turning a nasty shade of yellow. A permanent book? (It was $3.00.)

As it happens, the paperbound Dürer was on the same shelf as the Dante. The Dante is like the day I bought it. A little dusty, a little musty, but on the whole, I could read it like I tried to read it in 1982. It is a permanent book.

We try to make permanent books here at the press. Not every client can afford Smyth sewing, premium paper and case binding, but we recommend it and give you the option. We do not want your book to fall apart twenty years from now when someone opens it up to use it. I’ll still be around to hear about it.

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Quotation Marks