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Danny Strong

Danny Strong talks about his passion for book collecting shared by Sarah Michelle Gellar

Jennifer Kim

Thursday 16 February 2006, by Webmaster

Ones for the history books

Collectors of rare volumes are attracted by the authors, artistry, and yes, smell.

SOME people devour books. Tin Wornom inhales them.

"The smell of old books is enough to reel me into ecstasy," says Wornom, who collects rare volumes on English history. "Sometimes [the books are] musty, sometimes with a strange maple smell. Some smell of incense from being stored in a monastery for hundreds and hundreds of years."

In fact, the wardrobe stylist for commercials reveres her collection so much that it has its own room in her Toluca Lake apartment.

At 34, though, Wornom is a rarity in the rare-book community, which traditionally has been the province of men in their 40s through 60s. And yet, as the 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair draws collectors, dealers, librarians and scholars to Century City this weekend, she represents an important demographic: the hobby’s future.

The fair, which takes place Friday through Sunday at the Century Plaza Hotel, brings together 190 exhibitors from around the world and offers an opportunity to see five centuries of printing. Modern first editions in their artful dust jackets will be alongside illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

Among the works on display will be an original leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455) for $60,000 and a first edition of Pinocchio (1883) for $75,000. On the lower end, there will be first-edition, signed Ray Bradbury books starting at $35 and a love letter written by J.D. Salinger (1956) for $3,500. There will also be autographs, engravings and prints, maps and just about anything rare and literary. And there will be demonstrations of the bookmaking craft and arts.

Yet attracting younger collectors is something with which fair organizers have struggled, as new technology has consumed people’s lives. In addition, the collection of books for pleasure or for patronage has always been within a small group of people - historically, the elite who valued, collected and then donated books to libraries and institutions, says fair committee chairman Gordon Hollis.

"In the last 10 to 15 years [younger people] haven’t been text collectors," says Hollis, a 61-year-old L.A. bookseller. "It’s a transition time for us."

But he adds a note of optimism. "It’s going to end up in a very new, exciting phase where younger people start to reshape our thinking of culture by collecting books that reflect new demographics and new geographies. The Internet has made the world so small. It seems rather silly for young people to collect in traditional ways."

To that end, younger collectors might be drawn to the 1991 notebook of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, in which he drew and wrote lyrics and notes for his album "2Pacalypse Now" at age 19. "Tupac is the Shakespeare of our time," says Laurens Hesselink, a 30-year-old Netherlands-based dealer who is asking $47,500 for the manuscript at the fair.

But to start a collection, you don’t need a mountain of cash. Irene Suico Soriano, a 36-year-old writer and office manager, began her collection of literature from the Philippine-American War era with $30. She is interested in how Americans perceived and wrote about the Philippines, and she also collects the newspaper La Solidaridad from the 1890s, which encouraged the revolution in the Philippines.

"It’s really interesting to be able to physically hold something from another era," the Silver Lake resident says.

"It’s like holding history. I grew up partly in the Philippines and often heard this quote by Josť Rizal, one of our national heroes: ’He who does not look from the past will not reach his intended destination.’ I think my fascination with collecting has something to do with this and how my artifacts document social movements."

Though her collection might be worth something one day, that is not why she has gathered it. Eventually, Soriano would like to give her collection to her family or an appreciative institution.

Most collectors think along the same lines. They collect out of passion, enjoyment and admiration of the book and its place in history, and they relish the hunt. They value the book as a text, an art object or a symbol, and oftentimes they don’t even read it. In the end, says Carol Sanberg, a 56-year-old L.A. fair exhibitor, "A good collection tells a good story, and we all appreciate a good story."

AN increasingly lucrative area that is popular with younger buyers is modern first editions. Hollis estimates six out of 10 new collectors start here because of its initial affordability. One hundred dollars can fetch a minor Steinbeck or Hemingway.

Actor Danny Strong got bitten by the first-edition bug three years ago when he wandered into Mystery Pier Books on Sunset Boulevard. "It felt like I was in the coolest museum in the world, a museum of first editions," says Strong, 31, who has a recurring role on "The Gilmore Girls."

In his collection are first editions of "Beloved," "Ragtime," "L.A. Confidential," Eli Wiesel’s "Night" series and the British deluxe collectors’ edition of "Harry Potter." One of the reasons Strong enjoys collecting is because of the jacket art.

"I love seeing a book that I’ve loved for many, many years personified in the original jacket cover art, which is usually really cool and has a retro feel. It frames my love of this book into one simple visual." And, he adds, "80% of the value of a first edition is in its jacket."

As an example, "The Great Gatsby" (1925) without a jacket sells for $4,000; with an exceptional jacket, it sells for up to $150,000, says James Gannon, 45, a bookseller at Heritage House Book Shop in West Hollywood. The reason for this dramatic difference is due to the demand for modern firsts with their original covers versus the limited quantity that exists today.

Strong doesn’t know many people his age who collect books, except for his former "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" costar Sarah Michelle Gellar, from whom he acquired his Harry Potters. He purchased the books through a dealer, without knowing they were hers till later. Gellar had traded up for an illustrated edition, he says.

AS there are younger collectors, so there are younger dealers. Most of them are like Hesselink of the Netherlands and Rachel Weinstein, both of whom are 30 and work in family businesses.

Weinstein is vice president of Heritage Book Shop, where she specializes in rare children’s books (also an area new collectors like because they want to own the books they enjoyed as a child).

"There’s a lot to learn," she says, "and it’s hard to deal with a lot of the businessmen because they have a hard time taking me seriously sometimes. But eventually they do, when they get to know me. I’ve been doing this for seven years, and I am getting my respect."

She’s also discovered it’s best to look a little more bookish. "Once I was standing at a book fair and I was wearing a skirt and all these male buyers just wanted to talk to James [a co-worker]. And I never wore a skirt again," she says and laughs.

As far as colleagues her age, there are few. She has one female friend who’s also 30, and they tend to stick together at the shows.

Hesselink knows a few young men, also sons of fathers who started the business. "We always get together at these book fairs and have nights on the town - working hard and having fun as well," he says.

One hopeful sign for the future may lie in the founding of the California Rare Book School at UCLA, which is scheduled to open in 2006. Housed in the university’s Department of Information Studies, it aims to teach collectors of all levels. In addition, the university library sponsors an annual student book collecting competition and holds workshops.

Less formally, the book fair offers two seminars this weekend: "Rare Books 101" and "Collecting Your Roots," the latter of which focuses on how to build collections reflecting one’s ethnic or cultural background.

To encourage future generations, Weinstein also has given presentations to elementary school students in Malibu. She advises them on how to treat their books: "Don’t open it all the way. Don’t put your drinks on it. Don’t lick your fingers when you turn the page." And, of course, "Don’t rip off the dust jacket."

California International Antiquarian Book Fair

Where: Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, Century City

When: 2 to 9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $15, three-day admission; $10, Saturday or Sunday, including return entry

Info: (800) 454-6401, www.labookfair.com


What: Collecting seminars

When: "Rare Books 101," noon Sunday; "Collecting Your Roots," 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free with admission