Female authors get top-shelf treatment
An antiquarian bookseller touts titles by and about women
LANESBOROUGH — Antiquarian bookseller Second Life Books Inc. once put out a catalog with a title mentioning the "women's sphere," a term alluding to the early American notion that women should focus on domestic life. But Russell Freedman didn't choose a picture of a kitchen or a living room for the cover. He opted for the Earth.
"It was my way of editorializing," Freedman said on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
The Second Life Books owner was sitting in the Lanesborough home he shares with his wife and business partner, Martha, and about 27,000 books. Many of these titles are works by and about women, a specialty of the rare bookseller for the past two decades. When the Freedmans first started acquiring them, female writers and feminism weren't popular areas of inquiry in the antiquarian book community. Many acclaimed female authors' biographies weren't as well-researched as famous male authors'.
"It was a really unknown field when I first got into it," Freedman said. "A lot more people are doing it now."
For example, a first edition of late 18th-century English writer Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" might go for $25,000 at an auction today, according to Freedman. He doesn't have one of those 1792 first editions anymore, he said, pulling a third edition (1796) and first Irish edition (1793) of the feminist treatise from a shelf in his office.
Second Life Books focuses more on books examining women's political and social rights than modern fiction. Mary Astell and Margaret Fuller, for instance, are well-represented; the former was born in 1666.
"It's been a long fight [for women's rights]," Freedman said.
Though Freedman may not boast about Second Life Books' collection of female fiction authors, ask him to call up his Edith Wharton inventory on his computer, and a long list appears, including "Ethan Frome" and "The House of Mirth."
"Most of these are firsts," he said, referring to first editions.
First editions of literary classics are manna for rare book buyers.
"It brings them [a] closer connection to the author, like a book that's been signed by the author," Freedman said.
A book's first edition can have some valuable flaws. Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" is a good example.
"The word 'stopped' has three 'ps' in it on page 141 or 181," Freedman said. (It's page 181.)
The mistake was later corrected, but "the [edition] with the typo is more valuable," Freedman said.
Antiquarian books aren't just for bibliophiles, though. There's a business side to the industry that bears many similarities to art dealing.
"Books are basically priced based on scarcity and desirability," Freedman said. "It's basic capitalism."
When the Freedmans opened Second Life Books in Williamstown in 1972, they cataloged their collection on three-by-five note cards. They thought faculty and students would peruse their shop. But after a year and a half of little store traffic, they decided to open a book barn behind their house in Adams and send out catalogs to reach more potential buyers. In 1980, they also joined the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA). The trade association has long had Berkshire ties. In 1936, the late Howard S. Mott established an antiquarian book business in New York City and, 13 years later, helped found the ABAA. Today, Howard S. Mott Inc. in Sheffield is one of five Berkshire County ABAA members. The others are George Robert Minkoff Inc. in Alford, John R. Sanderson Antiquarian Books in Stockbridge and Savoy Books and Second Life Books, both of which are in Lanesborough.
The Freedmans moved to the town more than 30 years ago. A barn on their property houses about 20,000 books. Like the 7,000 or so in the main house, these works are documented in the computer. They are predominantly organized by lot rather than subject, though, so if someone were to poke around and misplace a book in the barn, Freedman wouldn't be able to find it.
"I'm up a creek," he said.
He doesn't have to worry about that much these days; antiquarian bookselling has changed significantly with the transition from brick-and-mortar stores to digital browsing. Only a couple of people per year schedule appointments to browse Second Life Books in person. The rest are surveying the collection online, placing orders from around the globe. Big spenders have more control over their shelves' destiny in the digital realm.
"If you want to put together a Hemingway collection, and you had an unlimited amount of money, you could do it in an afternoon. You could put together an incredible collection of signed books, letters, all kinds of stuff, in an afternoon," Freedman said. "You couldn't do that 10, 15 years ago. You would have to go to book fairs. You would have to go to book shops. You would have to make phone calls. Now, it's just you go out there and you type 'Hemingway first edition,' and there'll be, you know, three, four hundred books."
Freedman has been a lifelong book-lover. His early years were spent in the theater. The most expensive book that Second Life Books has ever sold was a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare's works. It went for $75,000. That buyer, a book dealer, then offered the folio for $175,000 in her catalog, according to Freedman.
And where do the Freedmans get their books?
"Oh, everywhere," Freedman said. "Before you came, I was looking at an auction of cookbooks that are being offered by somebody in Australia, an online auction. We used to do the house sales and yard sales kind of thing. [Sometimes], it's people calling up and having a library to sell," he said. "The frustrating but interesting part of the used book business is there's no one place to get them."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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