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Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Rego Barry: A Review

Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Rego Barry

If you have ever dreamed of finding a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird in a flea market or discovering a bundle of comics worth millions in a basement, then Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places by Rebecca Rego Barry is worth a place on your bookshelf.

Rebecca is well known in the North American rare book community as the editor of Fine Books and Collections magazine. Her book, which contains an introduction from Nicholas Basbanes, offers a collection of 52 stories about rare book discoveries in the most unlikely places.

Her sources are booksellers, many of which sell on the AbeBooks marketplace, collectors and librarians. Each story leaves the reader thinking: ‘That could have been me.’ But being in the right place at the right time is only half the battle. Her stories cover how our heroes researched their finds, verified value and what they subsequently did with them.

Rebecca’s love of books started early. She interned at Random House, and worked for Simon and Schuster after college. Her interest in collecting/treasure-hunting was sparked by the discovery of a first edition of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in a church book sale. A pretty good find for $1 as these listings show.

Anyone who loves used and rare books has stories to tell about discovering gems in unlikely places. These tales become badges of honor for bibliophiles and no-one has more stories of literary discoveries than booksellers.

Ken Sanders, the legendary bookseller and ‘bibliodick’ from Salt Lake City, is featured in a delightful story about how he volunteered to appraise books at a charity fundraiser and a man walked in off the street with a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Brian Cassidy, a seller located in Maryland, details how he picked up a bibliography hand-annotated by Jack Kerouac (although it took a year-long quest to verify this fact) at the San Francisco ABAA Book Fair for just $20.

Sammy Jay, a twentysomething Oxford graduate, recounts how he discovered a first edition volume one of Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley to Lord Bryon on top of a dusty bookshelf while sorting through his grandfather’s library. He describes it as a “light, slightly tatty volume.” Peter Harrington later sold the book on behalf of Jay’s family for an undisclosed sum – that’s ‘undisclosed’ as in a great deal of money.

Stuart Manley of Barter Books in Northumberland in the UK explains how he found one of the original red ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters from 1939 at the bottom of a box of old books purchased at an auction in 2000. The box was left unsorted for several weeks until Stuart and his wife Mary began to go through the items and found the poster at the bottom. The Manleys framed the poster and displayed it in their shop where it was a huge hit with customers. In 2005, a writer on The Guardian newspaper featured the poster in an article and sparked an industry totally devoted to the phrase – posters, t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, parodies. The poster was one of a series of three propaganda messages designed to ensure Brits kept stiff upper lips in the face of German aggression but they were never issued for display. What didn’t work in 1939, resonated with many people in 2005. With an expired copyright, the Manleys never profited from their find but probably have the greatest dinner party story of all time.

Oregon-based bookseller Phillip Pirages details how a discovery at a garage sale inspired him to become a book dealer. It was an English translation of the French book, A Treatise on Architecture, originally written by a Roman author, Vitruvius. The book is a manual for Roman construction site managers (hard hats and togas?). Philip haggled the price down from $45 to $35. After researching the book, he approached a dealer who specialized in architectural books and sold it for $1,000. Part of the deal was that Philip would be informed of the price when the dealer subsequently sold the book to a collector. It was resold for $3,000 and Pirages realized that his future lay in bookselling.

Rebecca’s collection of stories is fun and informative. It shows the thrill of the hunt is by far the most exciting aspect of collecting and selling books, and the next great discovery can turn up almost anywhere.

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