The Leaning Tower of Photography Books

by Tom Congalton

The Leaning Tower of Photography Books

Monday, Apr 07, 2008

One of the joys of dealing in modern literary first editions is the neat and nearly uniform size of the vast majority of one's inventory. Your basic octavo volume, when packed for a book fair, nestled convivially amongst its fellows, will fit neatly in a standard document storage box. After having done a few hundred fairs, one can pack up quickly and neatly, leaving no space in a box for the books to shuffle about, with the resultant deterioration in condition that loosely packed books usually suffer. I particularly recommend books of poetry and drama for this purpose — usually slim volumes that, when inserted between other books, tighten one's box load to a satisfying solidity.

After packing up at a fair, this usually leaves me with plenty of time on my hands, especially when traveling in the company of other dealers with a more antiquarian stock. This time can be usefully employed to enjoy a libation or two, and to jeer at my less fortunate antiquarian brethren, as they scratch their respective heads, trying to jam folios into uncooperative boxes, tooth by jowl with oddly shaped broadsides, pamphlets, and unsympathetic quartos.

These natural advantages that I enjoy in my chosen field have done little however from preventing your correspondent from indulging in "enthusiasms." One of the great joys of bookselling is dabbling outside of one's own field of specialty. This has the added advantage not only of broadening one's interests and customer base, but makes scouting more productive, as well as invariably produces a disgruntled reaction from the specialists in whose field one has encroached. I recall that after I had started dealing in African-American literature and history, now nearly two decades ago, a colleague reported to me that one of the more established dealers in that field had noted that I would "probably ruin my field, just as he has already ruined the field of modern first editions." I took this as a fulsome compliment, although all the evidence is that it wasn't meant as such. Would that I had so much power as to lay waste to whole strata of the rare book world!

My latest enthusiasm is photography books. After watching with awe and envy at a couple of book fairs where American photography dealers like Andy Cahan and Harper Levine blithely sold prohibitively expensive modern photography books, what wasn't to like? Of course, this is almost certainly a symptom of the famous grass is greener syndrome: presumably simultaneous with my interest in their field, they were sitting on their side of the aisle watching me sell expensive works of modern literature.

In my defense, avariciousness wasn't my only motivation. I pretty much came upon this particular enthusiasm innocently enough. Serendipitously, a couple of years ago, a local photography book dealer was moving out of an office and sold me a couple of thousand mid-level photography books. Soon thereafter, another dealer who was not particularly interested in photography referred one of their pet collectors who wanted to divest a collection of better photography books, which had been something of a distraction from their main collecting interests, and a few days later I had some relative high spots to seed into my growing inventory.

In both of these purchases I took into partnership Kevin Johnson of Royal Books in Baltimore. Kevin is younger and more energetic than I, he has a stronger back, he's "scary organized," and he has a half-filled room of art and photography books that he is, or at least used to be, anxious to fill up. I heartily recommend these qualities in a prospective partner, as it usually means that they will do all, or most of the work.

I also thought I'd buy some better books at book fairs, to spice up our first catalogue to be devoted exclusively to photo books. Alas, apparently I wasn't the only one who had noticed the increase of interest in photo books, because at the next book fair I attended, as I serially asked each of the dealers present if they had any photo books, virtually all of the seventy or eighty dealers present responded with some version of "Why yes, what a coincidence, I happen to specialize in photo books!"

Don't we all.

What were these people doing, poaching in my field of specialty? As some of these dealers had dealt exclusively in postcards or matchbooks a few months earlier, I was skeptical, but still managed to find a few nice books that appealed to my developing photo book sensibilities.

However, this developing success story was not without setbacks. I was unprepared for the Leaning Towers of photo books that started to appear around my office, and threatened constantly to crush anyone who passed too near these teetering stacks of heavy folios. And what an annoyance at book fairs! The books didn't fit easily in uniform boxes, the glossy paper used in the books multiplied their weight, and they didn't fit uniformly on the shelves. At the end of the fairs I found myself scratching my head, trying to jam them into uncooperative boxes, being jeered at by my modern first edition colleagues. How rude.

Also, dammit, the good ones kept selling! One of the great paradoxes of the rare book trade is that the sellers often don't want to sell their products, at least when they are trying to accumulate enough of one subject to make a catalogue.

But we persevered. When Catalogue 135:Unusual Developments finally appeared, to modest success, we managed to convince all of our modern first edition customers that we were leading dealers in photo books, and all the photo book collectors and dealers that we were dilettantes. I just love it when a plan comes together!

What should I specialize in next year?

This article first appeared in the February/March 2008 issue of Rare Book Review.