Bookseller Profile: Aleph-Bet Books
Aleph-Bet Books, located in Pound Ridge, NY, has one of the country's largest stocks of collectible and rare children's and illustrated books, and sells only first editions. Learn a little more about Helen and Marc Younger's fascination with children's books, and why, after 28 years in the business, the delight over the discovery of a long-lost book still means so much.
How did Aleph-Bet Books get started?
I started Aleph-Bet Books in 1977 with nothing more than a life-long love of books and the knowledge that it might be nice to pick up some extra money. At that time, I was a reference librarian working part time in a public library for very little money. My mother-in-law who handled estate sales noticed that whenever she had books in her sales, dealers would quickly scoop them up. Knowing my love of books and my unhappiness with being a librarian, she kept telling me I should start a used book business.
How did you learn about rare and collectible children's books?
As a start, my mother-in-law gave me 30 children's and illustrated books that she had accumulated over the years, and with that gift my future as a children's book specialist was born. I decided to put the children's books away until I learned more about the book business in general and about children's books in particular. I don't remember how I discovered AB Bookman's Weekly, but luckily I did. I began going to library sales and buying books in all fields for a quarter and then quoting them to dealers from their AB ads. Within a short time, I decided that I wanted to sell directly to collectors. Unlike today, those were the days before there was any formal education available to anyone who wanted to go into the business; but they were also the days when a first edition of Tasha Tudor's first book, Pumpkin Moonshine, sold for $15.00 in a dustwrapper so I could afford to learn "on-the-job." I relied on the kindness and help of other dealers that I met waiting in lines at library sales. I bought as many books about children's literature as I could find. I sent for catalogues from dealers, went to book fairs and I gradually accumulated enough rudimentary business knowledge to see that I could develop a business from this. Because I never was a collector, it may have made it easier for me to look at selling books strictly as a business and that accounts for part of my success. I certainly love what I sell, but I never looked at bookselling as a way to accumulate books for my personal collection because I didn't have one.
By 1978, it became clear to Marc that if I sold books only part-time, it could never develop into any kind of real livelihood and he encouraged me to leave the library and sell books full time. I still sold books in all fields, but I concentrated my buying on children's books. I did my first book fair in 1980 bringing along some of my original "stash" of children's books, confident that I knew enough to price them correctly. Imagine my surprise when they were all sold to a dealer before the fair ever opened! I knew I had a lot to learn and a long way to go but at least my degree in library science finally became useful when I began to produce catalogues.
How did you grow Aleph-Bet Books?
Marc gradually became more and more interested in the book business and when personal computers came on the scene, he saw the potential natural benefits that could exist between books and the computer world and between his computer software business and my book business. In 1982 he forced me to get rid of my filing cards and to use a computer and he developed a data base software package that he then began to sell to other book dealers. By 1985, Aleph-Bet books had grown to the point that it could support the family so Marc left the computing world and joined Aleph-Bet Books full time.
Why do you think you have been successful in the children's book business?
So much of one's success is due to luck. In the 1970's I was at the right place at the right time. I was able to learn the rare book business from the ground up. I deal in a specialty that has grown geometrically in popularity and regard. Children's books can be fun and they can evoke feelings of nostalgia, but collecting them can be much more than that - it helps to preserve a significant part of social history as well. Societal changes often first appear in books for children and one of the best ways to track these changes is through comparing books for children over the years to see how ethnic, social and cultural representations are reflected and portrayed. Because of this interest, we began to assemble a collection of pre -1970 children's books by or about American Black authors, illustrators or subjects. When that collection reached 1200 books it was sold to a special collections library. We have also been assembling for eventual sale a Little Black Sambo collection with every different depiction of Little Black Sambo that we can find. So far we have 250 different depictions of Little Black Sambo!
Do you have any comments on the future of the bookselling industry?
I couldn't finish this article without a brief comment on the Internet. It has been a mixed blessing for us and for the rare book world in general. We've met many new collectors who never would have found us before, but that is offset by one of the chief negative aspects of the Net. Giant book databases have evened the playing field. A person finding a book in a garage sale can appear to have the same knowledge as an experienced dealer. All they have to do is set up in business by copying descriptions of those of us who have been working in the field for years, giving the impression that they know as much as we veterans know. The customer is the one who pays the price by buying a book that might not be what it's claimed to be. But we reasoned dealers pay the price as well when that customer discovers he's been misled and then decides not to collect at all. So I caution collectors to try to deal with experienced dealers like members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America or members of ILAB internationally, and think twice before you buy from a seller who will not take returns.
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