James P. Bixler, Spirit Dancer Rare Books

Interview by Scott Laming

James P. Bixler of Spirit Dancer Rare Books in Cloudcroft, New Mexico talks to us about the trials, tribulations and joys of being a rare book seller and appraiser for more than 25 years.

How did you get started as a bookseller?

In the winter of 1982, while working as a brakeman/conductor on the Santa Fe Railroad, I was laid off, along with 54 other men. With a wife and four children, a mortgage, a legion of pets, car payments and various other garden variety debts, it was apparent to me that I’d have to act quickly to avoid financial ruin.

That evening, I retired to my book-lined study downstairs. Sitting at my desk, with head in my hands, I experienced an epiphany of sorts, it suddenly came to me that I could sell off some of my books, become a bookseller. After all, books are by nature replicated objects. I could always replace them at some later date.

Through all my tribulations—and admitted joys - of family and pets, my fledgling book business grew like a zucchini squash - robust, exponential. It soon filled whatever extra space in the house I could commandeer, eventually reaching the status of a leased storefront.

So you were a collector before becoming a bookseller? Do you still collect?

Yes, I still collect. Still read everyday. Indeed, I suspect that as long as life animates my limbs, I shall find myself an enthusiastic collector and reader.

Are there any categories of book you specialize in or hold dear?

There are a number of areas that I continue to find fascinating. Those that especially intrigue me are fine press books, early printing, science and geography, ancient history, poetry, archaeology (mostly Pre-Columbian), color plate books, arts and humanities, and fine bindings. In spite of this biased list, I am shamelessly eclectic. From time to time a medical text will find its way into my hands.

James Bixler's List: Ten Essential Books for Collectors and Appraisers

If you could make a wish and have any book walk into your possession tomorrow which would it be?

I think if my most sought after book came into my possession on its own it would be an anticlimactic victory. I never grow tired of scouting for books. Call it the thrill of the hunt, but I am inexorably drawn to that special aspect of the trade. After all, you can only sell what you acquire. That’s why I feel acquisition is so important to the success of any book business. To me, pursuing and selecting books is as exciting as any chess match. Moreover, I like being on the razor’s edge, pitting myself against the buyer’s esthetic or literary eye. It’s also a joy to open an obscure book and rediscover its beauty or its nearly forgotten wisdom. Indeed, book dealers are like moles digging underground chambers through the great body of the written word, turning the book soil, bringing up treasures that one generation may have consigned to obscurity.

What made you begin the journey to be an appraisal specialist in addition to bookselling? 

Like many great enterprises, Spirit Dancer’s appraisal service slipped into our bookshop. Friends and clients were always asking me to value this or that favorite book or artifact. Since I did not have the audacity to shingle myself up as an expert, I charged no fee for my services. Soon non-profits were inviting me to participate in small fundraising events known as appraisal clinics. While these pro bono excursions were stimulating and instructive, it occurred to me that if I were going to charge fees, I’d better get some sort of expertise.

So I began my educational stint began with the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA). I enrolled in their annual week-long seminar on the Antiquarian Book Market. Then there was a long period of learning, during which I received help from a good many people. I was also fortunate at this time to be taken under the wing of a grand old book dealer by the name of Henry Clausen and even rubbed shoulders with the venerable Fred Rosenstock of Denver, the leading bookseller in the field of Western Americana. I devoured book after book relating to my field: John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, Allen Ahearn’s Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide, Warren Chappell’s Short History of the Printed Word and the AB Bookman’s Weekly among others took over my nightstand table. Then, finally, my shingle went up: James P. Bixler, Rare Book Appraiser.

How lengthy of a process was it?

From start to finish it took more years than my undergraduate and graduate education combined!

What was the most interesting appraisal job you have done in your career?

By far the most fascinating appraisal of my career was that of the American Numismatic Association Library. Containing more than 35,000 specialized reference books on numismatics, the ANA’s holdings extended back to the 16th century. It contained many rare and elusive books on the history of coins, paper currency and medals. It was, in a word, splendid. Any appraiser would have considered it a privilege to research and describe such a collection.

Close on the heels of the ANA appraisal would be authenticating and appraising a single leaf from the so-called Gutenberg Bible. The Pikes Peak Library District of Colorado Springs acquired the leaf to represent the millionth acquisition of their library. For purposes of insurance and providing their patrons with its fair market value, the Library required the appraisal. Just holding the Gutenberg leaf caused my hands to tremble.

You have done some writing in addition to your selling and appraising.  How did you get into that?

Writing has been a part of my life since the age of fourteen. I’ve just finished a book entitled Cabbages & Kings: The Fine Art of Appraising Rare Books. The book was the source for my presentation on rare books at the Collectors Conference held in Los Angeles last year. I provided the attendees with a fifty-page manuscript as a handout. I owe a debt of gratitude to the College for Appraisers for encouraging me to complete the book. Walter Miller, Chief Executive of the College for Appraisers, suggested that I expand my notes into a full-length book. In keeping with the spirit of such encouragement, the CFA has invited me to be a keynote speaker at this year’s conference, to be held on May 31st through June 3rd 2007. The title of the presentation is, “So You Want to Write a Book!”

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