When my aunt moved from Boston to San Diego this spring, she dropped off a trunk of old books on my porch. Great, I thought. More stuff to fill my 1,000-sqft house, where storage space is already at a premium. But I had some options. I could unload them—either donate them somewhere, or place them curbside. I could keep them—find a closet to shove them in, or learn something about this collection of books dating back to the mid-1800s and write about them. I chose to keep them, store them in my car trunk, lug them around on a tour of independent/rare/antique booksellers to get a better understanding of the industry as well as the trunk’s contents. And that is how Project Book Lust was born.
Part 1: The John Bale Book Company
The story goes like this. An executor of an estate enters a bookstore. He hands over an envelope containing a letter and a lock of hair. American custom in the early to mid 1800s dictated shaving the heads of the deceased and distributing locks of their hair as mementos to family and friends. The booksellers read the letter. It’s from Mary Todd Lincoln. The hair is Abraham Lincoln’s, bequeathed to a soldier of close acquaintence, and passed down through that man’s family until the end of his line. The letter and hair cover the down payment on the bookstore’s new building. The store is the John Bale Book Company in downtown Waterbury, Connecticut.
Now with 20 years in the bookselling business, 10 of them spent in the house that Lincoln’s lock bought, JoBa has grown larger than a bookstore and café. It’s a hub for literary and community history. On any given day you’ll find regulars and passers-by alike reading and drinking coffee—attorneys from the Supreme Courthouse, high school and college students, veterans swapping stories, members of local nonprofits, etc. JoBa has even partnered with UCONN Waterbury to host an undergraduate writing internship designed to have students research and recreate narratives for objects in their collections (things like locks of hair).
I picked JoBa for the launch of Project Book Lust for its extensive collection of rare and antique books (there is a difference, as I’d learn), its copies of The New Yorker dating back to the 1940s, and its unique bits of rediscovered literary and cultural ephemera that matched the mission of Poor Yorick.
When I met Bilal Tajildeen, the bookman at JoBa, he was seated at a desk reviewing stacks of books under the Medusic gaze of triple-breasted, Siamese-twinned circus performers painted by Howard Lerner. The room smelled of coffee and paper. The maple floors bore the patina of a century’s commerce. I’d found the right place. But what is a bookman?
“Traditionally, it’s one who enjoys and deals in books and literary objects,” Bilal said. “Everyone here is a bookman. It’s what we do.”
His role at JoBa is also somewhat of an apprenticeship under the tutelage of the owner, Dan Gaeta. Together they review, appraise, and catalogue incoming books and ephemera. JoBa gets most of its books from donations. They also make house calls, usually to people who discover a stash while cleaning out an estate.
The first floor houses the JoBa Café run by Dan’s wife, Ede. It’s also home to their used books—those not considered rare or antique. The café has ample seating to lounge with coffee (try the Bookman Blend) and a book. There is also a study nook and couch, surrounded by the fiction shelves behind the central staircase.
The bulk of the rare and antique collection resides on the second floor. Going into this I really didn’t know the difference between rare and antique and tended to interchange them. “Rare” means irreplaceable, one of a kind (or a limited few), and may not necessarily connote antiquity. “Antique” is a looser term, meaning old or vintage. The walls upstairs are lined with leather-bound volumes rescued from obscurity (rare) or volumes re-bound in leather at some point in their history for aesthetics (antique).
“There’s a market for pretty books that aren’t really valuable,” Bilal said.
There’s also a market for ephemera like the letter from Mary Todd Lincoln. And in that market, people want objects beyond reproduction sometimes for no other reason than simply: because. Many will go above and beyond financially to have those objects. The market is one of total subjectivity and no limits (at least none seen from the outside). Dan and Bilal do well at navigating that market and curate the JoBa collection according to its taste.
So what about my books in all of this? Was it worth lugging some 80 lbs of paper and leather down a city block in 90-degree weather? What caught Dan’s eye? The 14-volume Dickens series numbered 219 of 1,000 that I thought was a sure winner? Nope. Turns out publishers ran multiple serialized sets to give the illusion of a limited run. What about the five or six leather-bound and scalloped editions of books I’d never heard of? Wrong again. All of them were good home showpieces, but not what he considered salable. Give up? It was a piece of ephemera – pocketsize leather travel journal from 1929, detailing an Atlantic crossing on a Whitestar Line vessel. Most journals were left unfinished once the traveler landed in Europe. Mine is detailed and complete, making it somewhat special. Dan even suggested it would be of great interest to a collector who visited JoBa the week before I did.
No fortune had arrived on my doorstep; my trunk of books is of little monetary value, though the books are pretty. But, I came out of my first stop in Project Book Lust with a new appreciation for things lost, found, and often underestimated; and yet another project: transcribing the leather-bound travel journal.
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