William Reese Company, New Haven, Connecticut

When it comes to selling Americana, William Reese Company is one of the biggest names in the rare book world with a breath-taking inventory of books and manuscripts. For owner, Bill Reese, his story begins 32 years ago in a college dormitory.

How it All Started
“I was a sophomore at Yale,” said Bill, who operates his company out of New Haven in Connecticut. “I started book dealing out of my dorm room. Yale has a strong collection of Americana and my mentor was a man called Archibald Hanna, who was the curator of western Americana at the university.

“My interest started after I spent time as a teenager on my uncle’s cattle ranch in Arizona. I grew up on a farm in Maryland but visited my uncle. Through Archie, I got to know booksellers, including a particular bookseller called Peter Decker – a very famous figure in Americana (Peter Decker’s Catalogues of Americana, published in 1979, reprints some of his finest catalogues).

“Peter had a loyal customer who died and his book collection was being offered for $40,000 by his family, who simply wanted to remove them from the house. We visited the house and even then I could tell that the collection was worth much more than $40,000. I went to my parents and they loaned me $40,000 so I could buy them – I took away 20 tons of books. I paid my parents back before the end of the year.”

The World of Americana
Bill’s definition of Americana is deliberately broad.

“For me, it’s anything to do with the Western Hemisphere, including North and South Americana and the Pacific Coast,” he said. “It starts with the earliest contact from Columbus to the end of the era of exploration, which for Alaska goes through to the 20th century.”

The genre of Americana splits into countless subsections, often defined by a region, an era or a particularly powerful social phenomenon like the Gold Rush, the Civil War or the development of the railway. It ranges across nature, geography, exploration, politics and the famous figures and key historical moments that contributed to America’s development.

Aside from rare books, William Reese Company offers early photography, paintings, manuscripts and letters. World travel is also listed as the firm’s other main specialty as well as natural history, color plate books, maps, and American and English literature.

“There are probably around 100 Americana book dealers with reasonably good stock and each one tends to focus on one particular area of Americana,” added Bill, who has addressed the Library of Congress on the relationship between collectors and libraries, and is in demand as a public speaker.

His Most Precious Item
So for a man who has been in the business for more than 30 years, are there still items of Americana that can take Bill’s breath away?

“Of course, we have one of the three known printed copies of the Gettysburg Address issued three days after Lincoln’s speech by the Washington Chronicle. The other two copies are in libraries. It was sold in 1967 from Thomas W. Streeter’s collection and bought by Malcolm Forbes and I purchased it from the Forbes family.”

Streeter is famous for his defining collection of Americana and particularly his Texana, while Forbes is famed for publishing Forbes magazine, his lavish lifestyle and his collection of Fabergé eggs.

The most expensive piece of Americana to have ever sold through AbeBooks is Historical and statistical information respecting the history, condition and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft for $38,000. William Reese Company is asking $850,000 for the Address.

The Art of Collecting Americana
His clientele are mainly private collectors and he sells through catalogs, the Internet, major antiquarian book fairs and by personal contact with a loyal customer base. Visits to his New Haven headquarters are by appointment only. “In many cases, institutions can no longer compete with private collectors because institutions are suffering from smaller budgets,” explained Bill.

For would-be collectors of Americana, Bill offers some excellent advice.

“This first thing to do is to find good secondary history books about your chosen topic within Americana,” he said. “It’s important to look for the most recent histories because they list extensive references and footnotes which in turn will refer to more good sources of information – 19 th century books just don’t give so many references.

“You need to grasp the larger picture – remember you are going to be putting together an historical collection, not a literary collection. In my office, I have a 14-foot by 10-foot wall filled with Americana reference books. There are three feet of books on California alone. Don’t go for all encompassing books on Americana – they’ll be too broad and not go into enough detail. This is where AbeBooks can be really useful – it’s now easy to find reference books just by searching online.

“I’d also advise looking up your local dealer in Americana books. Go and talk to them. They’ll offer good advice, and they’ll know the famous books, the readable books, the interesting books and the rarities.”

William Reese Company’s website (www.reeseco.com/ref.htm) lists a series of recommended reference books, including:

[Search William Reese Company's Inventory]