Brooke Palmieri is General Assistant and Cataloguer at Sokol Books, Ltd. in London. She kindly took the time to tell us a bit about how she ended up is such an old-school corner of book business, and why the way books were made and sold hundreds of years ago has lessons to teach even today.
What was your first job or internship in book business and what were the most important things you gained from it?
I worked in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s far from the front lines of publication, but I would argue that the job of putting the right book into the right hands is important for anyone interested in the business. Libraries and bookshops are the original Departments of Statistics for how books travel – and you learn to spot the patterns. But the most important thing I gained from working at Penn came from the sheer breadth of material; limited edition artists’ books, comic books, Civil War-era newspapers, early printed books and medieval manuscripts. The primary materials have a lot to say for themselves; they’re full of writing, hair, crushed flies, flowers, photographs, they’ve outlasted war and natural disaster, they record birth and death. Such an extensive (& expanding) collection forced me beyond the limits of my tastes, and allowed me to glue together a mental picture of the many different ways a book can come to mean something to someone, and carry that meaning along indefinitely.
How do you explain your current job to people?
My current job is General Assistant and Cataloguer at Sokol Books Ltd, a small London firm specializing in buying and selling books printed between 1500-1700, and occasionally manuscripts. Because I’m the only full-time employee, I am responsible for just about everything, attending auctions, keeping the accounts, submitting tax returns, organizing our presence at book fairs or gallery exhibitions, designing catalogues, and responding to e-mails at all hours. Best of all, I research and write about the books we acquire, which can be everything from navigational guides to aid English sailors, to treatises on summoning demons.
What specific aspects of your previous jobs or internships prepared you for what you do at Sokol?
Dealing with readers and researchers at the library was excellent training for dealing with clients and their varied interests. In that way, I can speak with the foremost expert of a field, or with a collector just beginning to take an interest in something new. In addition to personal contact, our scholarship reflects that diversity – describing the books in precise physical detail, but with content descriptions that make historical context & significance accessible.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your current job?
Finding time to advocate about our particular area of cultural preservation & exchange to outsiders! You can see treasures behind bars at any old exhibition, but you can actually handle and look through books with us, at events like the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, for instance.
Are there any major changes sweeping the rare book industry at the moment (things that might change the way business is done on a broad scale)?
We’re finally beginning to respond to the changes made possible by technology in productive (& well-designed) ways. There was a lot of early resistance to online bookselling. And on one level it made sense to resist: we were waiting for the point at which we could safely ensure collectors would feel comfortable making large transactions, and there was never a point or a need to being at the forefront of digital sales. It’s only recently that we can show off brazenly physical books efficiently: we’re talking books bound in velvet with gold clasps, annotated in several different hands with cramped handwriting. Books that require high resolution images and lots of them.
Now that we have these capabilities, trade organizations like the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and their members use digital possibilities to complement the rather than antagonize. I’ve sold books through blogging. But there is still a lot of work to do, especially with regard to enforcing professional standards – and that’s hard to do when anyone can sell anything they find in their attic on ebay.
What could new or young book publishing professionals learn from the world of rare/antiquarian books?
At the risk of sounding overdramatic: a lot. In the age of digital facsimile, or even in the last age of mass-produced paperback, antiquarian books never decrease in their worth, rarity, or beauty – the craftsmanship at work in their binding, illustration, and care that their owners took in preserving them – puts them more into demand but always less in supply. So I would say, study the vitality of pages whose type has been hand-set, whose initials have been illuminated in liquid gold, whose covers hand-tooled, because their endurance attests to the unique ability of a book to retain the marks any age leaves upon them, in a way meaningful to everyone after. The simplest lesson old books teach, that should be brought to bear upon publishing today, is to make books, and make them beautiful and stout. We hold the author to the standard in writing – instilling in a book all of the survival skills it needs to remain relevant for a few good centuries – but even if the author does just that, it’s no good if the book’s not made to feel worth keeping.