Profile of a Rare Book Dealer: Peter Kraus

I'm excited for you to meet Peter Kraus, who has been in the book trade exactly 50 years!  If you're ever in New York City make time to visit Ursus Books and Prints, at 699 Madison Avenue, between 62nd and 63rd streets.  Check out their website HERE.

I hope you enjoy his interview as much as I did!

Ursus Books and Prints  

Ursus Books and Prints
 

Q:  Tell me about yourself, even a brief history about how you became a rare book dealer.

A:  I was born in England.  My father was a surgeon, and I would have been the fifth generation of medical men had I become a doctor.  I went to Epsom College, a school for the sons of doctors, but while there came under the spell of my uncle, the bookseller, H. P. Kraus.  On leaving school I went to work for him on the day after my eighteenth birthday, and stayed for nine years.  Among the books that were in stock at one time or another while I was there were a Guttenberg Bible, a folio Audubon, and all four Shakespeare folios at the same time.  in 1972 I left to start Ursus Books, named by my friend, the artist and book maker, Leaonard Baskin.  Based on what I had learnt at H. P. Kraus, I dealt in scholarly art books and rare books of all kinds.  After our children were born, my wife, a librarian by profession, started Ursus Prints, dealing in rare decorative prints, and it has been part of Ursus ever since. 

For the past two years my shop is on the third floor of 699 Madison Avenue.  The building was designed after World War I to be the New York branch of Fortnum and Mason, and is a miniature version of the Picadilly store.  The Depression intervened and the store never materialized.  Prior to that I was in the Carlyle Hotel for 28 years, but the change in the nature of the book trade made those rather large premises unaffordable.  They are now occupied by a major art dealer. 

I am married with two daughters.  The eldest, Nicola, is the author of The Nanny Diaries, and eight other books, and the younger, Olivia is a lawyer, who has decided to give up law, and came to work in the book shop in August.  I am not a book collector, although I have a large reading library, which is largely non-fiction, consisting mainly of history, biography and travel.  I do, however, very much love and collect Indian miniatures.  I am also a lover of opera, attend the theatre regularly, and surprise am an avid reader, alternating fiction and non-fiction.  I also love to travel, but am never happier than when I return to New York, the greatest city on earth.

 

Peter with President Clinton, while President Clinton visited Peter's store.

Peter with President Clinton, while President Clinton visited Peter's store.

Q:  What is the preferred genre you deal in?

A:  I much prefer illustrated books, whatever the field, but can always be temped by a great, or special book in any field, although I find myself becoming less and less interested in literature.

Q:  What is the price range of the books do you deal in?

A:  I try to start at $500 and go up from there.  At the moment my most expensive book is $500,000.

Q:  What is the most interesting book you've sold?

A:  The most interesting book I have ever sold is probably a spectacular early nineteenth century manuscript from the Russian sect of Old Believers.  The illustrations throughout we're quite extraordinary, and because the sect was ruthlessly persecuted, very little of their printed or manuscript work survives. 

Q:  What was your most unexpected or surprising rare book find?

A:  One of my more surprising finds came several years ago in the private office of a French colleague who tends to specialize in books printed before 1900.  He produced a copy of the legendary work by Sonia Delaunay.  La Prose du Transsiberien.  This copy had never been assembled, and the sheets and the vellum binding, which had been hand painted by Delaunay herself, were still flat, and in pristine condition.  This made it one of the most desirable copies of one of the most sought-after books of the twentieth century.  It is now in a private collection in America. 

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

A:  Books are more important now than ever.  They are the physical manifestations of everything which makes up our civilization.  Of course, information is available digitally, but the physical book is about so much more than information.  Just as talking to a loved one on the phone or by Skype cannot be compared to being in their presence, so the physical book cannot be compared to its digital equivalent. 

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

A:  The biggest challenge has been the internet.  Prior to that, knowledge, quality of stock, professionalism, and location, were the things which made the difference.  All that changed overnight.  Now everyone is an expert, ignorance is bliss, and to a degree, anarchy reigns.  Survival for me, and not just my position in the trade, now depends on the four things listed above.  But the internet means that the advantages I would have had just from being in the trade for 50 years have been erased. 

Q:  What is your proudest moment of rare book dealing?

A:  My proudest moment as a rare book dealer was when my uncle, not one to praise anyone lightly, told me that he was proud of me, about ten years after I had left him to start my own business.  There was certainly never anyone else whose opinion I valued more.

Q:  What is the best advice you've been given?

A:  I was lucky enough to receive tremendous amounts of advice, and help from my elders and betters.  Dealers such as my uncle, Otto Ranschburg, Jake Zeitlin, and Pierre Beres to name just a few, and I think the one piece of advice which they all gave me, was to always try and buy the finest copies.  Always try and go for the best.  And I would still give that advice to anyone dealing or collecting today. 

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(Rare book dealer?  We'd love to tell your story!  If you're interested shoot us an email at eidolonhouse@gmail.com.)

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. 

Profile of a Rare Book Dealer: Dee Longenbaugh

Joseph and I are lucky to have a personal peek into the rare book world.  We love when collectors and dealers alike bring us books or call to talk about a rare book they've found.  The history behind who owned the books in the past is just as important as the books themselves; sometimes the one who owned the book is what makes the book important.  Being traditional book binders it's fun to examine how the old books were made.  Last week Joseph bound a book that was nearly 400 years old; the paper quality and the type quality of that book was amazing, and nothing like you see in today's modern mass publications.   

We want to share some of those fun stories with you; more importantly we want you to meet the people behind rare book dealing, the people who find rare treasures and small pieces of history found in rare books. 

I had the pleasure to interview Dee Longenbaugh owner of The Observatory, located in Juneau Alaska.  Take a look at her website HERE and if you're ever in the area stop by her shop!   I hope you enjoy the interview as she shares her journey that also led her to find and sell antique maps!

Q:  Tell me a brief history about yourself and your store. 

A:  I live in Juneau, Alaska, a small town of 32,000 that also happens to be the capital of Alaska.  I have lived here and had my shop since 1992.  In 1989 I decided to move home to New Mexico after 27 years in Sitka, Alaska, the old Russian capital about 90 miles from Juneau, both towns accessible only by air or water.  I enjoyed Santa Fe enormously - made friends I still have, adored the weather (Southern Alaska is said to be the world's largest Northern Temperate Rain Forest), but after two years I missed Alaska terribly.  This time I moved to Juneau as both my daughters and families live here.  

Q:  When did you open your shop and how did you decide on naming your shop The Observatory? 

A:  I began the shop in 1977 in Sitka and had no idea how to price and sell books.  I had traveled a bit looking for books.  It seemed every shop I went in had an owner who told me what a mistake I was making.  However, I found a small old house in downtown Sitka that had 480 square feet of space, including a full bathroom.  As I had 343 out-of-print books on Alaska, I bought a few shelves to go with a nice set my oldest son made me, and opened for business.  The name of the shop, The Observatory, was yes, because I wanted a reminder of looking out at the horizon of the wooded islets in Sitka Sound, but also because I had always wanted an old sextant and could never figure out a reason to own one.     

Q:  What is your preferred genre?  Do you only sell rare books? 

A:  Time went by and news of the first open shop (a part-time dealer in Juneau worked from his house) in Southeast Alaska made the rounds and the curious stopped by the shop.  I was encouraged and in 1979 went to London for two weeks, planning to return with armloads of Captain Cook and George Vancouver, the English explorers who explored our area.  Sadly, I had not realized the strength of the English pound versus the U.S. dollar meant I could could buy them cheaply in the U.S.  Then one day I was having lunch in a posh little restaurant off the Strand in London and on the picnic table someone had left a leaflet about a map shop.  It was not far, so I went there and met a charming young man who was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about selling maps of Alaska to someone who lived there.  I spent a massive $2,000 and decided if no one wanted to buy them I would have Christmas presents for years to come.  (We are still very good friends.)  Back home, word soon got around that I had old maps and various visitors to Sitka came by.  I found businesses were especially fond of old maps, which they had framed and hung on the walls.  That made others want maps (law firms were especially competitive with each other and I was glad to oblige).  So I got in the habit of the annual trips to Britain and Europe in general in search of more maps. 

Somewhere  along the way I attended a conference of IMCoS (International Map Collectors' Society), founded in Britain.  The founders included Helen Wallis, head of the British Map Library division of the British Library and her good friend, Eila Campbell, instructor at Birkbeck College in London; both dear friends and charming.  They made me feel so welcome I happily became accustomed to attending the annual meetings.  The real genius of the organizers was to require the host country to supply the speakers, so along the way I have learned huge amounts of history of the various European countries, including places such as Zagreb, then the capital of Yugoslavia, now of Croatia.  Last year the meeting was in Vienna; London the previous year.

Q:  What is your attraction to old maps? 

A:  Old maps show us what our ancestors knew of the world, including its size.  Maps are also totally visual so you need not know the language they're printed in.  But, I also love old books concerning Alaska and Western Coastal Canada.  I carry all the way from the second-hand used books to the true antiquarian, and do the same with maps. I work on the assumption that it's perfectly possible to have excellent taste and little money, as we all know the opposite is also true.   

 

Q:  Has the trade changed in our digital era?

A:  I feel grateful to have met so many charming and laughter-inducing people in the Trade and as customers over the years.  I do miss the excitement of the weekly map auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's in London, but times have changed and the manual typewriter is now no novelty; even the electric typewriter no longer thrills.     

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