Originally Published in Poetry Calendar
COLLECTING BOOKS: A GENTLE MADNESS
by Jett Whitehead
[Owner of Jett W. Whitehead Rare Books, Bay City, Michigan]
Robert Frost is a good place to start. My master's degree in creative writing was winding down, with only eight more credit hours to complete, plus the thesis... there was daylight in the academic tunnel. What would happen professionally after graduation was up to the heavens. My dream was typical: a creative writing post at some small college to cover living expenses, while I wrote the world's best poetry to be auctioned off to the highest bidder among the major publishers. It was a simple dream.
But first to finish the semester. Looking through the course offerings, this graduate seminar looked perfect: "Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson & Wallace Stevens. Special permission from the instructor required." I'd never met Dr. Hepler, had no idea that this was his last semester before retirement, but surely he'd take me in. We met, we talked, he did. As the semester unfolded, the twelve of us that made up the seminar class devoured Frost. We never tired of his poems, his struggles, his life, his failures, his success. The semester flew, and with two weeks remaining we'd never once discussed dear Emily nor Mr. Stevens. We finished the semester with an overview of Dickinson's poetry, and The Collected poems of Wallace Stevens was, unfortunately, never opened.
To commemorate the semester's end, and Dr. Hepler's retirement, Mrs. Hepler invited the seminar students and their spouses to tea at their home. It was no surprise to find the house filled with interesting objects, and stacks of books. But there was something mystical, nearly cleric, about one particular room: his study. There was one door, one window, and all four walls were filled floor to ceiling with books.
But they were not just books like the others stacked throughout the house. They barely resembled the armloads I'd been carrying across campus for the past few years. These volumes in his study were resonating to me without ever coming off the shelf. Alone in the room, I knew I was surrounded by something new and unnatural to me... and I loved the feeling of just being there... looking.
I had to ask Dr. Hepler why the books in that room looked so different than the books I had at home. He smiled, chuckled, and explained that the books in the study were very special indeed. This room housed his book collection. During the following weeks, he brought me up to speed. We met often, sometimes for coffee or lunch, and the conversation always came around to books. His collection included large folio editions of Shakespeare, first editions of Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. There were books with beautiful colorplate illustrations, and one with a fore-edge painting. They all looked, and were, expensive. Eventually we both knew I was hooked on the idea, but I didn't know where to start.
His advice was perfect. Pick a single subject, or single author, and begin buying books one at a time as my budget would allow. My choice was obvious. The subject, poetry, the author, Robert Frost, and the goal, to own a first edition copy of each of Frost's eleven individual volumes of poetry. And along the way, supplement the collection with ephemera, editions of Collected and Selected poems, and books written about Frost.
This meant learning a whole new language and skill: Bibliographic terms, and where to find the books.
It was to become an interest, a passion, an addiction, a love, a joy, an all-consuming gentle madness... and my future profession.
By the time our Frost collection had taken shape, I was sorting through the mental notes I'd been unknowingly taking about how to run an out-of-print book business. I began seeing volumes of other poetry in "first edition collector condition" sharing space on our shelves with the Frost books, and referring to those volumes as inventory! Then one day, the result of a dare from Shelley, I decided to test the market-place. I took out a large advertisement (two full pages!) in an international journal devoted to book selling. In it I offered our "poetry only" books for sale, and found a small but welcoming audience.
That ad was followed by another, then another, and eventually the publication of our first catalogue of books for sale.
Though it is not uncommon to find book dealers with specialties, our entrance into the bookselling world with "poetry only" books for sale was unique. Some still wonder if we are a bit mad, ...in the business sense. But the focus is clear. From an early age, I have been committed to involving myself, submerging myself, in poetry as my profession. The growth of the out-of-print poetry book business was, and still is, a natural for the world of poetry and book collecting... a gentle madness.
If you're ready to start your own poetry collection, or just looking for one, elusive title, help is only an e-mail away: firstname.lastname@example.org!
Read Jett's thoughts on Collecting Poetry