Profile of a Rare Book Dealer: William Reese

I'm excited to introduce you to William Reese of William Reese Company.  William's shop is located in New Haven, CT.  With a cataloged inventory of over forty thousand items, and a general inventory of over sixty-five thousand items, William Reese Company is among the leading specialists in the fields of Americana and world travel, and maintain a large and eclectic inventory of literary first editions and antiquarian books of the 18th - 21st centuries.  

Take a look at the William Reese Company website HERE!  This shop is located at:  409 Temple Street, New Haven, CT 06511.   

I had the pleasure of interviewing William; I hope you enjoy his journey of book buying and selling as much as I did.  


Q:  Tell me a brief history about yourself and your path to bookselling. 

A:  My path to bookselling began at a young age, growing up in a house full of books in rural Maryland, where the only outside amusement was a flickering black and white television.  Books were far more appealing.  After going to school in Baltimore, I arrived in New Haven, CT as a Yale undergraduate forty years ago, in 1973.  I've lived here ever since. 

Q:  How long have you been buying and selling rare books? 

A:  I began dealing in books while a sophomore at Yale.  While in high school I had done a lot of book scouting, especially once I got a driver's license.  I really came to it through my love of American history, which led me to seek out books not readily available.  Yale librarians were generous in mentoring me, and through them I became better acquainted in the big world of rare books.  When I had a chance to buy a library, it seemed like a natural step.    

Q:  What is your preferred genre and what is the price range of books you deal in? 

A:  Americana, in the largest sense, is my specialty.  That really includes the Western Hemisphere from Columbus up to the closing of the frontier - about 1900.  These days I also do a lot of travels and voyages throughout the world, especially the pacific; and natural history and cartography, again Western Hemisphere. 

My firm also deals in 18th - 20th century literature, although it's not my personal specialty.  We sell books from the $20-$25 level up to handling items into the seven figures.  The core of our stock is in the $500-$10,000 range. 

Q:  What are some of the most interesting books you've come across? 

A:  I've handled some wonderful things:  The original Louisiana Purchase Proclamation; one of four known copies of the first printing of the Gettysburg Address; every one of the major Americana color plate books and atlases, sometimes multiple times.  One of the most interesting items I ever sold was a manuscript map of part of the Valley of Mexico done about 1560, and just had an entire book about it published by the Yale University Press (Mary Miller and Barbara Mundy, editors, "Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).  Finding that map was a great thrill. 

I've long collected personally.  I formed big collections of the WWI English poets Robert Graves and his friend, Siegfried Sassoon.  These have mostly been given to Yale.  I now collect Herman Melville, a group of English writers I like, books of American views and scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries, and early American natural history books.   

Q:  Why do you think books are important in our time of digital media? 

A:  Digital media is a wonderful thing for pure words.  It cannot yet reproduce the qualities of an engraving, mezzotint, or lithograph, any more than a photo of a painting can replace a painting.   Once one digs a little deeper, a researcher will realize there is information in paper, bindings, annotations, provenance, and other physical clues of a book that do not translate fully to digitization.  Books remain a stable platform that have worked for a thousand years.  Remember there was a time when microfilm seemed the cure-all!

Q:  What has been the biggest challenge you have experienced in rare book dealing? 

A:  The biggest challenge in building a rare book business is capital.  It is expensive to maintain a stock of rare material.  Balancing hard-headed business with the passion for books needed to be good in the business means great discipline in buying right to sell at the right price.   

Q:  What has been your proudest moment of rare book dealing? 

A:  I'm proudest of some of the customers I've worked for and the confidence they've placed in me.  I won't name them, as they tend to be very private people, but I've helped build collections for some very rich, very well-known, and also very smart people.   

Q:  What is the best advice you've been given as a book dealer, and what advice would you give to a would be book dealer? 

A:  When I started in the business, in 1975, I bought a collection which had a section of Civil War books I knew nothing about.  My mentor, the great dealer Peter Decker, then 83, had helped me buy the books.  When I said I didn't know about Civil War books, he said, "Well, you're a bookseller.  Figure it out."  That was excellent advice I've followed since.    

My advice to anyone starting out would be mundane:  Have a good business plan.  It's a business like any other, and requires the same application and attention to the bottom line.  Don't buy something just because you love it - you have to know how to sell it, too.