One of my great passions is antiquing. I enjoy finding new shops and poking around forgotten treasures in search of that one thing that is actually worth something, and genuinely "antique" (100+ yrs old).
Last Sunday I was at a massive indoor market in Bridgeport, and happened across a bookseller's stall, way in the back. It was manned by a middle-aged British woman but stocked by a guy who was likely enjoying his weekend on a yacht somewhere. I scanned the shelves quickly, my eyes programmed to find one thing: calfskin binding. They had a hit in under a minute, but it proved to be a nineteenth-century book, which is a big thumbs-down for me. Nineteenth century books, though real antiques, aren't old enough. I kept scanning, scanning, and ten seconds later, hit number two. This one was entirely calfskin, not just a partial with bare boards like its Victorian neighbor, and I knew as soon as I pulled it that I'd hit the jackpot. The Brit didn't know how to read Roman numerals (a little weird), and when she called the owner, he didn't know what she was talking about, and just threw a generic $100 price tag on it. Sold!
The book is an original Dublin edition of Jonathan Swift's letters to the people of Ireland, compiled by George Faulkner in 1742 (several letters in the book are separately dated as having been published a year earlier.) It contains his famous protest against William Wood's copper half-pence, penned under the pseudonym, M.B. Drapier. Faulkner was a friend of Swift's, and had several editions of his letters published over the course of the eighteenth century, but few are as ornate as mine, which is full of intricate wood cuts of bucolic scenes gracing the chapter pages. Although the title is worn off the spine, the condition of the binding and pages is otherwise flawless. Holding the book, it almost feels like it's brand new, which is bizarre, given its age. The only things suggestive of antiquity are the shape of its spine and the light scuffing of its leather. Someone told me it might have been recently rebound, but its front cover has a library stamp bearing the name and family crest of Jonathan Lovett, Esq., of Liscombe Park, Buckinghamshire. It was in his collection, and still bears his crest -- and he died in 1770!
Aside from its condition, the thing I love most about the book is its smell. Its calfskin cover is gamey and a little sweet, its note of barnyard mixed with something like dry leather, and its laid-paper pages are so musty that I catch whiffs without even opening them. Part them ever so slightly and rest your nose in the valley, and it's just heavenly old paper and woodblock ink, an aroma that I doubt could be replicated in a lab. The unique smell of an eighteenth century book is one that predates the Industrial Revolution, and conjures images of men in small shops with panel after panel of woodcuts, and with letters shuffling everywhere as they align text by hand. My 1792 edition of Hugh Blair's sermons, which was published in America (different spine and binding technique) looks its age, but smells equally good, save for the chemical leather glue the idiot that sold it to me used in a rushed patch-up job. These books smell of the sands of time, and it takes a seasoned nose to appreciate that. To many folks they probably just smell of mold.
My aspiration is to find a seventeenth or sixteenth century book for a reasonable price. Once you pass the 300 year point, it gets significantly harder to find quality. Most of the books that predate 1701 are in rough shape, with loose pages, loose and detached cover boards, and god knows what going on in their spines. Ebay is a surprisingly good place to look, with a few obvious counterfeits here and there, but also a significant number of real articles in varying states of decay. Schilb Antiquarian is another (much pricier) place to browse. If and when I get lucky, I'll keep you all informed.