If people looked through my room they’d find various boxes and shelves representing 25 years of accumulation. In one corner of my childhood bedroom sits a giant bag full of Star Wars figurines accompanied by a lone Millennium Falcon toy. That bag contains 11-year-old me’s, (and 25-year-old me’s – who am I kidding) prized possessions: all of the ’95 Hasbro Power of the Force Princess Leia action figures, unopened. Next to that are three milk crates full of vinyl records, within are all of my Clash first pressings, which I started collecting as a kid after my mom gave me her copy of Combat Rock. Gathered in a nearby bookshelf are my Sylvia Plath first editions.
I know what you’re thinking, so what? Your room has a lot of junk in it. I came here to read about antiquarian books, dammit! Well Mr. Smartypants, Esquire, I’m about to tell you. It has to do with “The Collector,” without whom we would not be here. “We” meaning booksellers, of course. I’m not suggesting that collectors birthed you, unless your mother is a collector… anyway I digress.
Clearly, in order to make a living, booksellers need their inventories to be desired. But what possesses a person to devote their life to gathering these articles? Why do you need to own both the first British and American editions of Jane Austen’s novels, in original boards no less? I can’t really answer that. The thrill of the hunt, perhaps? However, after a few months of going through one man’s library I have observed that our accumulation of objects reveals something about each of us. We write our autobiographies with that which we chose to surround ourselves.
Recently I have been on a one-woman mission to catalog all the books from a library we bought a short while back. Box after box of books from the 1950s onward, some really good modern first editions, and mostly signed. It’s the signing that struck me first. It seems that everything that was published from the moment this man turned 20 to the day he died, he decided he needed. From self-help to Mitchener, this man had it all. I imagine him standing in line at that first signing, anxiously awaiting his turn to share pleasantries, praise the author of the hour, and get that first novel signed. Did the grooves from where the pen pushed into the paper send shockwaves down his spine? Did he fangirl like I so often do, fumbling over everything that he’d practiced saying while he was in line? Or was he cool, collected, ready to embark on his first edition signature odyssey.
He’s become so familiar to me. Why does he have ten copies of The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, all signed? That’s just him, I’d think to myself. Why did he need Dr. Ruth’s autograph? Why in the midst of important literature does he have books signed by male models? Did his upbringing forbid him from coming out? I found myself wanting to be the person he could talk to, his book tour buddy, his shoulder to lean on.
Then there were the numbers that kept popping up. For any book with a limitation he tried to have the same numbered copy, which seems to be a common practice for some serious collectors. A favorite number, perhaps, the first one he ever managed to get a hold of?
Some are inscribed coldly and some as if by long lost friends, startling in their sincerity. I even Googled the man’s name once and came up with a certain author saying what a great collector he was, and another link to a woman’s writing blog, discussing her emotions hand-in-hand with his need for his books, especially for the autographs.
Maybe none of it means anything. Maybe it was just a guy with a lot of time and money on his hands. If someone looked through my possessions what would they conclude about me? That I’m nerdy and didn’t see the sun much after the age of 10? That I had so many action figures at one point that I assigned them all different personalities, i.e. Evil Luke, Dumb Han? Or that my mother and I bonded through our shared love of “Rock the Casbah”? No, they’d probably suspect I was a 35-year-old guy.
Until they saw the Care Bears.