Feb 26

Making the Leap into Bookselling

by Adrienne Kitts

The New Day: A Poem in Songs and Sonnets by Richard Watson Gilder. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Company, 1876.

The Washington Antiquarian Book Fair will be the first book fair for Austin Abbey Rare Books, and I’m grateful to Beth Campbell for accepting my application to exhibit and for giving me this opportunity to introduce myself.

Making the leap from being a collector to being a bookseller certainly did not happen all at once in my case. As my background is in the laboratory sciences, I like to investigate and evaluate something before I pursue it, so I did what any bench scientist would do when faced with a new methodology -- find someone who has done the work for years and learn from them.

When I decided to take that first step, I immediately thought of Dale Sorenson, the retired owner of Waverly Rare Book Auctions and a licensed and accredited book appraiser, who I had met at Washington Rare Book Group events. Dale was enthusiastic about the idea of being my mentor, and as he is a consultant at Waverly, he thought it would be a good idea if I worked with him there. Both Monika Schiavo (Waverly’s current director) and Dale were generous with their time, discussing trends in book sales, and everything else from condition to intrinsic value while we created shelf lots. I learned how to evaluate books, make a short but sharp catalog description, and how to prepare for and bid at an auction.

Once I decided that I definitely wanted to take the next step, Dale strongly suggested I go to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS), an opinion strongly shared by almost every bookseller I asked at the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair (WABF). I applied for, and was most fortunate to receive a scholarship to CABS. Not only did I receive a much needed education on the nuts and bolts of running a small business, but I also learned who to sell to and how to sell from people who know this business very well. I gained incredibly valuable information on the burgeoning markets in archival and manuscript material as well as ephemera, and essential information on reference resources, the fine art of collation and the intricacies of a good bibliographic description. My week at CABS did more to prepare me for opening my business than I could have possibly hoped, and I draw on the information that I learned from my generous CABS instructors nearly every day.

After finishing CABS, I began the slow process of building the backend of my business, using the tools I learned from both my time at Waverly and CABS. I sold the high points of my collection to fund my new business and started work on building stock and establishing stocking and accounting systems. During this time I took a trip with Dale to the Baltimore Book fair, where I met up with Bob Seymour (Colebrook Book Barn) and Dan Gaeta (John Bale Book Company), who I had first met at the WABF, where they had kindly listened to my hopes of attending CABS and becoming a bookseller. Bob and I sent the occasional email over the intervening months, so Dan knew I had made it to CABS. When viewing Dan’s booth at Baltimore, I was drawn to a grouping that consisted of an early edition of Wilde’s Salomé with some loose drawings and some Salomé prospectuses. Dan generously asked me to partner with him and Bob by cataloging and selling the group. This is when I discovered how valuable my training in the biological sciences was to my researching and cataloging. As a biological scientist you are taught to observe, take notes on your observations, and use those notes along with the appropriate reference works to draw a conclusion. That’s what I do now as a bookseller -- only I observe books, manuscripts and archival material and use what I observe along with any applicable reference works (another kind of treasure hunt in itself) to create a detailed description and background story of what I see.

After some very exciting research, I found that one of the Salomé prospectuses was quite rare, and was able to identify a buyer and successfully sell the prospectus to an institution. Dan and Bob’s gift of partnership allowed me to spread my wings as a cataloger and to have confidence in my abilities as a bookseller more than anything else could have possibly done.

Bob later took me with him on a book call where I was able to observe and help evaluate a collection of books and manuscripts. I was very fortunate to have that experience since the very next month, I received a call from a woman who had found my business on the internet, and who asked me to evaluate her grandfather’s library in Virginia’s Hunt Country. I ended up making an offer, and became the proud owner of a 1,500 volume library that contained some exceptional books.

While preparing for the Fair, I’ve managed to develop and open my new website, and have just finished researching and cataloging a collection of photographs with manuscript captions that Bob and I found together. I have submitted my description of the archive to an interested institutional buyer and am awaiting their response. It seems like every day in this business is more exciting than the last, and I am so very grateful to all the people who gave me the knowledge and experiences that allowed me to hone my skills, believe in myself and take the leap.

Adrienne can be found at her website Austin Abbey Rare Books

Austin Abbey Rare Books specializes in illustrated books and decorative bindings of the Fin de Siècle; Private Press and Americana. 

Photo: The New Day: A Poem in Songs and Sonnets by Richard Watson Gilder. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Company, 1876.


visit Austin Abbey Rare Books in Booth #53 (Shenandoah)

visit Colebrook Book Barn in Booth #58 (Shenandoah)

visit John Bale Books in Booth #57 (Shenandoah)




Learn as if you were to live forever. - Mahatma Gandhi