Like love affairs, many literary friendships end badly. None more so than the recent blowup between Paul Theroux and his longtime mentor, V.S. Naipaul. As with estranged lovers, their split came at the end of a string of misunderstandings, glacial silences, and nasty recriminations. It was a soap opera, and Theroux kept us updated every step of the way, first with a caustic portrait of his former benefactor in the New Yorker and then with an entire book trashing the Trinidadian-born novelist and essayist. Perhaps the most interesting footnote to this drama of curdled friendship, however, is how the object that precipitated the contretemps--a book inscribed by Theroux to Naipaul and his second wife--landed in the basement of a St. Paul strip mall.
Harper Levine, the proprietor and sole employee of Harper's Books, is happy to display his newly acquired treasure and recount its meandering journey from Naipaul's bookshelf to his own. "This is what started the feud," he explains, pointing to a dark squiggle inside the cover of Theroux's Fong and the Indians. "What happened was Naipaul's wife sold this to a collector in London and then it went to another collector. Then it went to a dealer in the U.S., and finally Ken Lopez bought it and doubled the price."
Ken Lopez, whom Levine describes as the American "dean" of rare, first-edition book dealers, advertised the inscribed volume in his catalog as "near fine in a very good dust jacket" and inflated the price to $1,500. Flipping through this catalog one day, Theroux noticed that a personal message he had meant as a private gesture of friendship was now on the open market, and he and Naipaul began their very public quarrel. At the same time, Levine saw the book in Lopez's index and realized that it had suddenly become a valuable bit of literary flotsam.
He jumped at it. These days, the asking price for the book, inscribed in light pencil next to the notorious squiggle, is $6,000, or roughly 400 times the list price of a new copy.
"Books are so undervalued," says Levine, carefully stashing the precious tome on a shelf at the rear of his tiny underground store. "People will pay thousands for a minor watercolor by a minor French painter. I want to promote books as works of art with the same reverence and respect that people have for art. I mean, they're paying $100 for Beanie Babies and old Coke bottles."
Levine, an earnest young man with a dark crescent of stubble on his chin, is relatively new to the rare-book business. A student in Hamline University's M.F.A. program and an aspiring writer, he became interested in rare books during a stint at a used bookstore in Minneapolis, eventually renting a space of his own beneath a St. Paul Caribou Coffee when his inventory began to compete for apartment space with his wife's stuffed-animal collection. He is uneccentric, he says, by the standards of the book-scavenging business, and despite his youth, he is already somewhat philosophical about the mad scramble for literary bric-a-brac. "There's something romantic in it," he explains. "Most collectors start out as readers. It's about the relationship a reader has with the writer. You feel like you know the person--just like chasing a star.
"Giving rare or signed books is now in vogue in Hollywood," he adds. According to Levine, glitterati such as Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, and Beck ("Beck?" "Yes, Beck") now trade the leftovers of the literati. Paul Theroux, however, is not impressed with the signed first editions boom. In his latest effort, Sir Vidia's Shadow, which Levine also happens to have on hand, the petulant author compares rare book dealers to "rag-and-bone" traders, the macabre Dickensian class of merchants who trafficked quite literally in human detritus. Modern first-edition merchants, Theroux writes, "are little better than junk dealers." (In an unexpected twist reported in Salon, the junk dealer in question, Ken Lopez, wrote to Theroux's publishers asking to have the passage expunged. In an even more unexpected twist, the publisher agreed to temper Theroux's sentiment in future printings. In a downright fabulous twist, Lopez received a note, presumably from Theroux, with the words fuck you scrawled on it. And, in a twist that only irony could allow, Lopez sold the note for $150 and offered to split the profits with Theroux if the author would agree to scrawl more expletives).
If modern first dealers are, as Theroux claims, junk dealers, it would seem that the rag-and-bone business has entered the Information Age. Like most of his contemporaries, Levine does the majority of his business over the Internet and through catalogs. Gone, for the most part, are the lurking book ravens who make their livelihood descending on library and estate sales in search of that rare Audubon Society field manual buried in stacks of tattered and mildewing Nancy Drew mysteries. Also like most of his contemporaries, Levine sells much of his stock to other rare book dealers. A volume with a personal inscription such as Theroux's will thus change hands, cross continents, and grow exponentially more valuable without ever being read.
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."
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.