Rare booksellers have stories—things that seem to define them aside from the tales in the books they sell. For the John Bale Book Company in part one of the Project Booklust series it was how Abraham Lincoln’s hair found its way into the shop. In the case of Johnnycake Books in Salisbury, Connecticut, it’s something even more personal—boxer shorts. Not just any old trunks, but handcrafted boxers embroidered with E O’N, which once graced the posterior of Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill.
Johnnycake owner, Dan Dwyer scored this piece of literary ephemera after O’Neill’s family home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, went up for sale. However, the boxers alone don’t define Dwyer’s work as a rare bookseller. Rather, their sale to the Eugene O’Neill Society reveals the challenge of marking the line between literary artifacts and pop culture junk, and it exposes a tension between proponents of the visually oriented pieces and collectors of more traditional texts. As in the O’Neill boxer case, the definition is often solidified by a sale. Since the undergarments were bought by the historical society dedicated to the study of O’Neill, they became artifact. Their fate might have been different if bought by, say, me.
Dwyer, however, has found his place in that space of loose definitions. He leans toward visual pieces (art, illustrated texts, etc.) in his collection with books on architecture, gardening, and art (all popular topics with Salisbury locals) in addition to important literary texts.
“I learned early on I should sell what I like, not what I find most profitable,” Dwyer said. “Something I’d still want to keep around.”
Dwyer entered bookselling through the side door while pursuing other careers. After graduating from Georgetown, he coordinated press conferences for then presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter. He later moved to New York and worked for CBS before buying a home in Salisbury and becoming a full-time resident there. He started collecting in the mid-1990s and has attended the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Over the years he has honed his eye for rare books through this combination of training and sheer exposure.
“You have to study thousands of paintings to get a sense of what you’re looking at in an art museum,” Dwyer said. “It’s the same with books.”
Salisbury has a lineage of rare booksellers. Dwyer is the successor of a history dating back to the 1920s when the renowned Maurice Firuski left Cambridge, Massachusetts for Salisbury and opened The Housatonic. Firuski ran his shop for nearly fifty years. After his death in 1978, his apprentice, Mike McCabe started Lion’s Head Books. When that shop closed in 2000, Dwyer opened Johnnycake Books in the same building.
Despite the traditional roots of Johnnycake’s location, Dwyer is drawn to controversial visual pieces. High on his list of favorites right now is a collection of screen prints by Hugo Gellert, the Hungarian-American illustrator and communist. The prints—priced at $27,000—are inscribed to Sam Dewitt (expelled from the New York State Legislature for being socialist) and draw a unique political and artistic connection between the two men. This connection boosts the prints’ importance and thus makes them rare.
I started Project Booklust hoping to learn something about the trunk of books my aunt left on my doorstep. After two stops I’ve realized I have much more to learn about the vibrant literary subculture of rare bookselling. I’ve picked up some technical tips like spotting red rot on covers. I’ve learned the telltale signs of improvements and amendments that render pieces “unsophisticated.” A “sophisticated” piece (more desirable due to its authenticity) should “show wear like an old shoe,” according to Dwyer. There’s also a fine line between sophistication and decay. Rot and decay aside, I had a hard time resisting Dwyer’s first edition of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and its microbe-butchered leather binding.
Above all, I’ve learned the shops and the people who run them embody many of the traits that make their stock rare. They’re keepers of unique stories and lost histories much like the fine leather-bound volumes on their shelves.
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