The Names

In the author-signed-book trade, literature meets the ledger

Levine uses Wall Street as an analogy to the dynamics of the rare book trade. As with stocks, the idea that a book could possibly be worth $6,000 challenges commonly held notions of value: Is a commodity judged by functional or aesthetic standards or merely by the fact that someone else may want it? Isn't a book just words on paper? Perhaps, but for dealers, the rare inscribed book or uncorrected galley represents a connection--albeit tenuous--to the rarefied literary world.

And the hoarding of books as objets d'art has a distinguished history as well. During the Dark Ages, for instance, Irish monks stashed illuminated manuscripts away despite the fact that almost no one could read them. The rare dealer's obsession, Levine explains, is also about preserving books as a tangible presence in a time when the written word often seems irrelevant. "As technology becomes more pervasive," he says, "people want the physical relationship you can't have with a computer. It's a backlash against technology and modern society."

He is interrupted midstream to take a telephone order--a woman searching for Jon Hassler's second novel. The book business, it seems, is also big business, and although the profit margins are low, Internet ordering has made the rare first edition easier to market. Levine expects to be in the black by next year and is predicting $10,000 in sales. "Most booksellers don't know anything about business," he explains. "I don't have a soaring talent. I'm not going to write the great American novel. But this, I'm good at."

Harper's bazaar: St. Paul rare book dealer Harper Levine
David Kern
Harper's bazaar: St. Paul rare book dealer Harper Levine

Yet for every collector, pack rat, and scavenger, the thrill is one part acquisition and one part possession. There are books, Levine admits, that he is loath to part with. He recently found a copy of Kaddish signed to Allen Ginsberg by William S. Burroughs, who, he theorizes, intended the inscription as a eulogy to the former, then on his deathbed.

There are also, explains Levine, books that are so beautifully bound and typeset that, historically significant or not, they become works of art purely on aesthetic merit. As an example, he removes from a top shelf what appears to be a faux-wood miniature of a doorway lintel. He carefully lifts the top off the box and pulls out a soft, dark portfolio secured by a dainty red ribbon. Beneath the ribbon and cover is a folder lined with a flowery motif reminiscent of hotel wallpaper. Inside that, there is a small chapbook of about four inches square. Inside the book, which is prefaced by perfect trails of calligraphy, is a short story by acclaimed local David Haynes. Levine opens the book carefully and spreads the first two pages back with one finger.

"Working with books like this is what it's all about," says Levine in a reverential whisper. "This is something to be treasured." He delicately slips the book back into its elegant little sarcophagus and sets it in its place on the top shelf of his bookcase, where it will accrue value and dust.

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