By Heather Boulding
Say the word Las Vegas and first thoughts envision all-night gambling, elaborate shows with scantily clad women in sequins and boas, and impromptu marriages by an Elvis impersonator. Nicknamed Sin City, this metropolis is easy to spot from space as the brightest city on Earth. It’s also the last place to expect rare bookshops. Past the brightly lit stores, slot machines on the streets, and men hawking 1-800 numbers, it wasn’t easy to locate Bauman’s Rare Books. Nevertheless I found it in the Palazzo Hotel and Casino shopping forum, nestled between designer clothing and handbag stores.
Opened in February 2008, this rare bookstore seems at odds with its immediate surroundings. Dark wood with glass windowed cabinets displays first edition and rare books, tall bookcases stand on each side of the store, and a library sits behind glass doors where prospective buyers can peruse books in peace. This bookstore also has ephemera – its most notable pieces being the first Nevada State Flag from 1865 and a Peter Force facsimile of the 1848 Declaration of Independence. I met with one of the managers, Justin McShea, who says interest in American colonial books is growing. “There’s always been interest in the founders and more and more people are starting to find American history interesting,” he says.
So why did Bauman, a long-time AbeBooks seller with two other stores – one in Philidelphia and the other in New York – decide to come to Las Vegas? McShea says they were looking at a store out west and the high hotel occupancy rate of Las Vegas, along with year-round conferences, was an ideal spot. “It’s an outlet for those that don’t gamble,” he adds.
In a city more renowned for its shows and parties, it seems the last place for rare book collectors to be. But McShea explains: “We get a fair number of local buyers and collectors. Out of town gamblers who’ve won big stop in sometimes – although it doesn’t happen as often as we’d like. The majority of our customers are repeat customers.”
While early American colonial books are often in demand, collectors are so individual it’s hard to identify buying trends. McShea notes young collectors (those in their 30s) start by collecting hyper-moderns - books published in the last 15 to 20 years. These books aren’t as costly, but it’s speculative as to whether they’ll stand the test of time as collectible classics. “The majority of buyers are hobbyists, not investors,” he says.
For those who have no idea where to start their collection, McShea has some advice – buy the best copy you can afford and buy what you love.
When asked about the economy and its impact on the rare book market, McShea remains optimistic. As the economy dips more books come on the market, often lowering prices, but Bauman is expecting brisk business despite tighter purse strings. McShea doesn’t think that many other high-end bookstores will be coming to Las Vegas this year, so, for now, they has cornered the rare book market on the Strip.
In an unassuming strip mall 15 minutes from the Strip is a modest store proclaiming “Used Books”. The owners of Amber Unicorn Books, Lou and Myrna Donato, have collectively been in the book industry for 59 years. Lou, a former explosive mining technician, has the quiet confidence around books that only 30 years in the industry can bring. His wife, Myrna, has a warm smile and welcoming presence that immediately makes the store inviting. As the only ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America) member in Nevada, the couple say Las Vegas chose them as opposed to the other way around. They opened this new shop in March 2008 after selling their old bookstore and attempting to retire from the book business. “We had so many calls from people asking us when we were going to open up a new store.” Myra says. “So we did.”
Myrna specializes in cookbooks and estimates she has around 18,000 to 20,000. Amber Unicorn books is the only bookstore in Las Vegas that specializes in cookery. “I’ve been a cook since I was 10 and I started buying cookbooks. I didn’t think I was collecting at first,” she says smiling. “It always amazes me that even with all the cookbooks I have, there are others I haven’t seen.” For those aspiring chefs who want to buy a book that has stood the test of time Myrna recommends Betty Crocker – the old, not the new, edition.
I arrive early at the store before it opens and since the bookstore is a fair distance from the Strip, I had a hard time imagining tourists with cameras hanging around their necks coming to the store, but Myrna surprised me. “We’re right by Trader Joe’s (a health food shop) so we get a lot of tourists and convention people stopping by. If you’re not a gambler it’s a good alternative. We also get a lot of local collectors, especially cookbook collectors.”
Along with cookbooks, Myrna and Lou specialize in science fiction and fantasy. Both say the genres are selling well right now although paperback, not hardback is selling better. Myrna admits business has been a little slower since the economic decline, but it’s nothing to worry about. She defies some cynics’ predictions that say the Internet will put bookstores out of business. Las Vegas is a surprisingly literate town and she says that bookstore market is not saturated.
Myrna and Lou have a couple tips for prospective collectors. The first and most important is to collect what you’re interested in and what books you want to read. The second tip is to research what you’re buying and know who you’re buying from.As I leave Amber Unicorn Books, Lou and Myrna, with kind generosity, insist they drive me back to the conference I was attending. The stark contrast between the flat suburban outskirts of Las Vegas to the high, imposing concrete towers on the Strip is surreal. And while it appears gambling and all-night carousing will remain the main attraction for thousands of tourists, it’s comforting to know that quality booksellers and the rare book industry are here to stay as well.