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A morning well spent
An unplanned visit and chat with an antiquarian book dealer
Is there a universe in which writers can pass by a bookshop and not enter it? Unlikely, and more so in the case of used bookshops, which have a particular aroma tantamount to pheromones to a bibliophile. The only possible deterrent can be the demeanour of a bookseller, which sometimes takes the form of a curmudgeon rearranging bursting shelves or sitting behind the counter wishing away the asinine questions that are surely coming.
Some weeks ago, as Lauren Deborah and I were strolling down Cambie Street after our morning of catch-up, we spotted a sign for a bookshop next to a set of unevenly descending stairs. Stepping over the awkward bulging first step - that I stumbled over and nearly went flying head first into the shop - we made our way to an unassuming space that revealed itself to be part store, part bookbinding workshop.
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To my delight (and relief), we were greeted by a friendly duo of a rare book dealer, Richard - the owner of E.C. Rare Books and a third-generation bookbinder, and a sustainable business consultant Irina. We were kindly invited to look around, and were able to closely inspect a few antique books with fore-edge paintings dating back to the seventeenth century. Among the items was also a first edition of Gone with the Wind, accompanied by a one-page letter typed by Margaret Mitchell to explain to the buyer that she was far too busy to sign the book.
The walls of leather-bound series carried across from one room to the next, sending me to a world far removed from the noise of Cambie Street’s and the chatter of the coffee shop on top. I spotted a three-volume first edition set of James F. Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans that was published in 1826. The information card carried a commentary on the genocidal nature of colonial expansion and the prevailing and erroneous beliefs during Cooper’s lifetime, which I did not expect to see on display outside of a museum. Before moving to Canada, I, too, bought into the romanticized ideas of the frontier and associated historical inaccuracies. The book holds a space in my heart for entirely different reasons now.
As I walked around the bookshop and admired the functional bookbinding tools on display, I wondered how someone gets into this line of work and, more importantly, how they see the future of this trade unfolding. As an admirer of fine craftsmanship, I worry about the devaluation of skill, and the acquisition of rare books for aesthetic pleasure only. But I’m also not in the trade, so what do I know about making ends meet as the market evolves and introduces new types of buyers.
Lauren Deborah and I left after a while, full of wish lists for what our bookshelves might house one day, and parted ways for the day.
A few minutes later, I was hunched over a bowl of salad across the street, desperately trying to spear kale with a disposable wooden fork while recalling a book I had recently read on the topic of used and antiquarian book markets. It was a bookseller’s lighthearted account of his industry, complete with droll anecdotes involving his customers and workers, and observations on the state of the market.
I chucked the remainder of the unstabable kale salad and hurried back to Richard to ask him about his views on the book market. Below is the interview I recorded using my phone and the transcript.
If you’re a book lover and find yourself in Vancouver, please stop by the shop and say hello to Richard. It’s a treat to be able to walk around and learn about the different books and bookbinding techniques.
E. C. Rare Book, 323 Cambie St, Vancouver, BC V6B 2N4
https://www.ecrarebooks.com, Instagram: @ecrarebooks
Richard: I’m Richard Smart, owner of Old English Bindery and E. C. Rare Books.
Nelly: Thank you for having me ask you questions randomly on a Friday morning. Tell me what got you into this business?
R: Three generations. So my grandfather started bookbinding in around about 1910, somewhere around 1910. Just as a trade in London, it was just one of the things you could go and do. He then went out on his own as a bookbinder in the 1930s. And after the war, he then carried on as a bookbinder by himself. And my father then joined him at around about 15 years old. And it kind of carried on from there.
N: Did you spend your childhood sort of in bookshops? bookbinding?
R: I spent my it was mostly just a workshop then on the restoration. So yeah, I did grow up playing hooky in school and go and find my dad at his workshop. So yes, I did.
N: How do you think the market is going?
R: The market has always been up and down. Especially having been on the market for the last 100 years, listening to other book dealers and bookbinding. Certainly, from the the bookbinding side of things, the market was really at its height in the early 1900s, when opulence became a big thing like a Faberge egg, and they started turning bindings into pieces of artwork, like the forage paintings that you saw earlier. So that was a really high in the career bookbinders for the arts and crafts period, William Morris, and people like that.
Apart from that, book collecting has also just gone through different fields, and avenues of either wanting to be historic, or looking and collecting history, then wanting to collect for financial purposes. We also had a period in the ‘90s and early 2000s, where there was a lot of film stars, that were actually very, very big on on screen and they felt that they needed to up their image as far as intelligence size, even if they didn't need to, so they started building libraries in their houses. So that saw a big upturn in the market. So it depends on what's fashionable at the time that changes things around.
N: And what would you say is fashionable now, at this moment?
R: I think the art side of things are coming back into it, the fine bindings, especially the ones that were done in the late 18 early 1900s, they are becoming collectible again. Also, manuscripts and now becoming very collectible, I think more because the word is all on computer now so people are actually starting to look, go back and look for the manuscript versions of history and started to record it that way.
N: What do you think the future looks like for this trade?
R: I think the future is going to stay fairly level for a while. It's certainly, again like a lot of other things through history, with book collecting there's there's no longer a middle ground anymore. We do have people coming in to the buying the smaller cheaper books because that's all they have finance for, or you get people that are buying the really expensive stuff. Where they used to be a complete middle ground of everything that is no longer… is the same as the cars or someone's either driving an old car or they've got a Lamborghini. It's the very same thing that's happening with artwork, with books. So I think it's going to carry on on that trajectory for a while, hoping that the younger people as they get jobs and start putting computers to the side a little bit, will start collecting more of the middle ground work and becoming interested in that. So we could see upturn probably in the next 20 years of things picking up that way again, which would be nice to see.
N: Tell me what was your most memorable or treasured moments in your career so far?
R: There have been a few, especially when you get something that you're working on, or you purchase to sell that has provenance. For example, we do have a piece that I may show you in a minute from Edward Jenner, the guy that invented the vaccine. So it was actually his working copy. So then you know you're actually touching history. So that's always a memorable thing.
As far as the bookbinding side. Again, going back to what I said earlier, with bindings being turned into artwork, they used to be a binder in London called Sangorski & Sutcliffe’s. And they used to do what's called jewelled bindings. Now the most famous one went down on the Titanic with 1500 precious and semi precious stones in it. These jewelled bindings were done on … the content was always illuminated vellum and it was done by a guy called Alberto Sangorksi. Francis Sangroski was the guy that did the bindings. A customer of mine who I've known for many generations, I've been around for many generations, and we’ve known in the family, he managed to get hold of an Alberto Sangorski manuscript that had never actually been put into a jewelled binding, and then asked me to do it. It's a writing by Sir Walter Scott called Lochinvar. And the story is basically the knight wants to hang up his broadsword for the love of a lady. So it's a short poem, very nicely illustrated. So I'm going to show you on the computer the inside cover of the binding that I did. So there you have in Pearl the sword entwined with gems around it. See if I can go back to some of the other gems. This is the outside cover.
N: Amazing. Is that rubies?
R: Yup. Rubies. amethysts. Pearl. That's all done by hand. All individual tooling.
N: Here, in this workshop? Using tools like this?
N: So can you tell me about some of these tools? What am I looking at?
R: So what you're looking at is the tools that we use to do the gold work on books. There's lots of different tools more down here all over the place looks a bit of a mess. The reason is that because a book restoration a bookbinding goes through so many periods. So if someone comes in with a book from the 1500s, I need to repair it and restore it using the tools from that period. Or if someone comes in with a book from a different period. So I have to try and match things up to be correct period.
N: Tell me what is your favourite piece right now in your shop?
R: I think this is one of my favourite pieces. There are a few. But this is one. So this is a box that I made. And this is a diagram that was done by Edward Jenner, who was the guy that first invented the vaccine. And the diagram was sent out to the military, British military, that were all around the world in the 1800s to show them the effects of the vaccine. So I recreated this in leather trying to make it look a little like human skin.
N: Yeah, I don't think you can pick it up on camera but it's textured and protrudes. It's textured here.
R: Yeah. So, it’s just the book inside the box. So this is the book on vaccine, an inquiry into the vaccine by Edward Jenner.
N: Is that 1894 here?
R: 1834. The book is from the 1800s. It's an inquiry into cow pox and small pox. If you turn on to one of the plates, you'll see how similar it is.
Now what we have in this copy is a spelling mistake on the advertisement page, initialed by Edward Jenner, the guy that invented the vaccine. So this was his working copy.
R: I think one of the things that's nice about having a shop like this is the different people coming in. And so I was just thinking from your comments that we don't integrate with people enough anymore. So when you do get a group of like-minded people in a bookshop, you suddenly realize that you actually have the same ideas and thoughts on writing and you know, the book and other things that end up coming out of that. Instead of being very secular and just doing it on your phone or talk in that way, so it's nice when you see people kind of laugh and giggle together in a way that we just can't do with technology..
N: Yeah. It was beautiful to see them all. And you have a bookbinding workshop coming up.
R: We do. The next one I think we want coming up. We just put up for September the first. I think August the 18th is now full, I’m not sure. But we will be posting more dates for book binding workshops.
N: So if you're in Vancouver, or just this general area around the best way to get to know that is …
R: Come into to the bookshop, find out what it is.
N: Perfect. Thank you so much, Richard.
R: So this this tells the story of a toolmaker who decided to… a bookbinder who decided to kill a toolmaker. So as he walked into the build.. into his workshop here he moved and hit him with one of these, which is quite heavy, you can see that in his hands. So John Paas is the guy that was being killed and then spent three days being cut up and burnt on a fire used to make tools like this. Now, if you look closely on here I don't know if you can see it, you'll see P A A S. So this tool was actually made by this guy that was being killed. And also this tool here, was also one of his designs. So it just keeps following through history or these kinds of things. Quite amazing.