The art of words: Antique books worth collecting

Hannnelore Headley. Old and Fine Books Bought and Sold’. The sign is carefully, but inexpensively, painted, the shop undistinguished. Push open the door and you step into the unmistakable, heady atmosphere of leather, old paper, printer’s ink and the accumulated knowledge of ages.

There are books everywhere. Behind glass-fronted doors, on open shelves, in boxes on the floor and stairs, piled on chairs. From behind her cluttered desk the smiling owner greets you in softly accented English.

Born in Berlin during the early years of the Third Reich, Headley had the blood of generations of book lovers in her veins and its pulse still beats strongly. Her father, Heinz Heinemann, owned bookshops in Berlin, Shanghai and Montreal, and his grandfather’s brother founded the important publishing company of Heinemann in Britain.

By the mid-1950s Headley was married and living a "very Bohemian existence" in Vancouver. "We rented a shop downtown and lived behind it. We had no kitchen, it was very primitive, but it was the beginning of the `flower era’." She chuckles now at the memory of it, describing it as "an enriching experience." The narrow shop was sn a literary centre where aspiring writers George Bowering, John Newlove and Gerry Gilbert talked for hours and played chess. And Bill Bisset even lived there for a while.

A second marriage took her to St. Catherines, where her husband teaches at Brock University and where, in 1972, she opened her present shop.

Although a successful dealer, Headley cautions potential collectors against expectations of making it rich, although there are some sellers of rare editions and manuscripts who "do very well," she says.

For Headley, it’s the pleasure of discussing books with the people who visit the shop, people who often become friends; of introducing young students to the joys of reading and collecting; of occasionally coming across a rare find. "I used to buy five to seven good collections every year," she says. "Now I’m lucky to find one."

She prices her books to sell, to be read and loved. Of the 70,000 volumes in stock, only a few hundred fall into the `rare’ category. Customers, for their part, consider her store a rare find. Many from overseas make a visit to her store one of the first things they do. "Often I see them before their relatives do," she says.

Browser or collector, Headley is rich with advice for the beginner. "Collect what delights you," she says with fervour, "and buy for pleasure first."

She goes on to say collectors must be prepared to spend time informing themselves about the most desirable editions in their chosen subject. Reading catalogues produced by reputable dealers is important, as is learning the language of books. Words like quarto, octavo, foxing and glassine must become part of a collector’s vocabulary. Get to know reputable dealers, visit fairs, look at books, handle them.

Condition is always an important factor when collecting. Generally, if a book is in bad condition it’s best not to buy it, unless you can get it for next to nothing, just to have a copy, says Headley. You should then upgrade as soon as possible.

"Surround yourself with your books," she says fervently. "Books are meant to be read and handled. Leather breathes, and the oil from your skin is good lubrication." She also recommends a light coat of leather dressing containing lanolin and pleads for scotch tape to be kept far away from books. A touch of white glue will hold a binding until it can be professionally repaired.

Books are best kept in glass-fronted cases. If they have to be stored be sure the area is dry, raising cartons off the floor and keeping them clear of concrete or basement walls. Damp and mould are the biggest enemies of paper; once a book is infected the mould spreads relentlessly.

As a collector, Headley specializes in juvenile literature from 1500 to 1970. Enthusiastically she shows off her favorite, an Alice with Tenniel illustrations, before settling down to explore the many other unusual books on her shelves.

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Tucked away in several rooms of a Victorian house in Port Colborne, an attractive town on Lake Erie, is Alphabet Books, owned by Richard Shuh and Linda Woolley.

Shuh, who sells primarily through catalogues and at book fairs, deals in 20th century literature; mainly first editions. He moved to this small town eight years ago from Toronto where he had a store for 15 years.

"With fax and internet I can work far away from the major cities, and I’m close to the States where I find many of my books." He often goes "foraging" in northern New York State, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Many of his customers are also from the States, and he has mail order customers in Britain, Germany and Japan. With 2,000 names on his mailing list, Shuh puts out three or four catalogues a year, sending each to about 600 people. While he agrees with Headley on buying what you enjoy and buying for pleasure, "If it turns out to be an investment, that’s a bonus" — he recommends waiting until you can buy the very best condition you can afford.

Meanwhile educate yourself by reading book magazines such as Firsts or Biblio and check out the Sunday New York Times and the British Times Literary Supplement.

Another avid collector is former history teacher and Niagara area resident Jim Curtis. His collection spans a 365-year period from 1489 to 1854 and consists mainly of theology and philosophy books.

"Books are the most human of collectibles," he says. "More than music, furniture or art, they bring the past alive; the ideas and feelings in them speak to me over all the years."

In 1956 Curtis bought his first book, almost by chance, from a catalogue. "Printed in 1565 it had its original cover. It seemed unbelievable it was still around. From then I was hooked."

A few years later, while studying in Connecticut with Wanda Landowska, Curtis found his second oldest book, a 1516 edition of Juvenal’s Satires. Since then he has acquired such gems as a 1608 copy of the Geneva or Breeches Bible, A Treatise of Fluxions dated 1704 and a first edition of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop (1840), one of the `youngest’ in his collection of over 50 amazing examples of the printer’s art and the art of words.

When he places in my hands one of only 11 known copies of Sentences by Peter Lombard, I experience the awe and shiver of centuries of readers. Lombard lived during the first half of the 12th century and this edition was published in Venice in 1489. A theological textbook, it discusses fundamental Christian doctrine and qualifies as an "incunabulum" — a term for books published before 1500 when printing was in its infancy.

Curtis found this wonderful volume in a Buffalo store in 1982, but also has several in his collection bought from the lady in St. Catherines who lives and breaths books — Hannelore Headley.