We consume books for different reasons—escape, fulfillment, distraction, etc. Much like consumers, booksellers enter the trade for various reasons or passions. In doing Project Booklust, I’ve discovered this prominent trend in the rare book community. At the Boston Book Fair the level of demographic diversity of the attendees surprised me. Furthermore, each seller I’ve visited has shared a story of pre-bookselling experiences that seem far afield from their current trades. John Kehoe, of John Kehoe Books in Stamford, Connecticut, has just such a story.
Kehoe entered bookselling from the commercial construction trades. He worked for a long time as the second operator on a large crane. On breaks the primary operator would lower the crane’s boom and Kehoe would scramble the length of it, checking and greasing fittings and joints. When the primary operator returned, he’d tell Kehoe to beat it, not wanting to reveal any secrets of the crane’s operation. Kehoe worked his way into construction management and into a job requiring him to travel between Connecticut and Baltimore. While a transient worker in Baltimore, Kehoe read extensively.
I’m sure you see where this is going by now. Kehoe began researching and buying used titles to sell as a side job, a little extra cash. He eventually amassed a collection, made Kehoe Books a legitimate business, and earned a membership to the ABAA. But that’s only part of the story.
Kehoe is also a writer, who took classes with Gordon Lish, and has enjoyed some success as a freelancer. His work has appeared in a handful of commercial magazines, including Cigar Aficionado, where he wrote a riveting piece on professional croquet. Kehoe delivers a story that is at once entertaining and informative. Turns out the sport best known for backyard shenanigans draws to its upper echelon a class of warrior elite businessmen, heirs, and royalty inflicting calculated and brutal defeats on their competitors. Who knew?
The writer/rare bookseller precedent exists. Kehoe finds inspiration in such examples as Andrew Roth and Kevin Johnson. Roth wrote, The Book of 101 Books, a major text on the history of photography books in the twentieth century. Johnson runs Royal Books, an ABAA rare bookshop in Baltimore. Johnson is also the author of The Dark Page and The Dark Page II, two illustrated books about American film noir from the 1940s to 1965.
The idea of a full-length, collaborative project about books is a looming possibility for Kehoe. These days, however, he’s occupied more with bookselling and navigating consumer trends in the rare book market. Kehoe confirmed some observations I made at the Boston Book Fair. After undergoing volatility introduced by the Internet and subsequent digitally disruptive commerce, the rare book market is seeing the entrance of younger collectors—Gen Xers and Millennials.
Kehoe says these new collectors aren’t seeking signed copies of, say, Thomas Hardy like their predecessors. They want edgier visual books and the kind of ephemera that flirts with pop culture collectables. They’re after stuff from Ed Templeton (a professional skateboarder and artist) and “The Polaroid Kid,” photographer Mike Brodie. With this trend in mind, Kehoe scours estate sales and other venues for ephemera including concert handbills from bands such as The Ramones, vintage issues of Punk, or self-published rants. He’s a devout collector of large-format illustrated books—things he calls “Kindleproof.”
“It’s all about wall power,” Kehoe says, referring to the stock he keeps at the Antique & Artisan Center on Jefferson Street in Stamford.
His shop is a further demonstration of the transitioning world of rare and antique book collection. It sits within four book-lined partial walls, a den of visual and textual art amid a sprawling, chic warehouse of antique furniture that draws celebrity collectors including Keith Richards. But if you scan the shelves Kehoe intentionally salts with underpriced pieces, you’ll see books like Arthur Tress’s Skate Park. This juxtaposition of the hallmark pretensions of Connecticut antiquing with edgy underground titles shows even a novice like me the influence of new collectors who will soon write the definition for the rare and valuable.