August 24th, 2008 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER: Inside Powell's Rare Book Room


Every Sunday, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.

    Inside Powell's Rare Book Room

Face it: you're loaded. Flush. Filthy-stinkin', chihuaha-totin', get-me-my-daiquiri-because-you-know-what?-I'm-rich, rich. What's a soup kitchen? Who cares! You've got more money than John McCain has malignant melanomae. Of course you don't remember how many homes you have. After all, what are executive assistants for? Right?

But listen up, all you suffering heirs. What good is a disposable income if you don't dispose of it? In other words: no inheritance is complete without an expensive hobby to spend it on. Allow me, therefore, to introduce you to Powell's Rare Book Room.

Yes, I agree, The Great Gatsby is nice—a democratic pleasure, if ever there was one—but wouldn't it be nicer to read it in F. Scott's own handwriting? In my younger and more vulnerable years I assumed it was the words themselves—not the manuscript—that made the act of reading so enjoyable. What foul dust! One trip to Powell's Rare Book Room and I was cured.

Since 1987, the Rare Book Room—or RBR, as it is known among Portland inheriterati—has catered to the tender urgent needs of moneyed bibliophiles, selling everything from hand-colored ornithological prints to broadsides signed by Tennessee Williams. Last month, the RBR parted with one of its most prestigious (not to mention, most devilishly expensive) acquisitions of all time: four colonial treatises on witchcraft—including a detailed account of the Salem Witch Trials—written by Cotton Mather and signed by his son, Increase Mather. Bound into a single volume, the treatises commanded $40,000 from a private collector in New Hampshire.

Interestingly, although RBR curators will occasionally bid at auction, the institution gets most of its merchandise—including the witchcraft anthology—from locals who bring in boxes of used books to sell for cash. Ben Hunter, RBR's rare book specialist, remembers that sale:

“The guy basically didn't have any idea what he had in his hands,” says Hunter. “That book would have been worth $20,000, even without Increase Mather's signatures.”

Before we turn to current on-sale items, it's best to dispel a few misunderstandings. First. The somewhat equivocally-named “Rare Book Room” probably ought to be called the “Expensive Book Room,” as the fundamental criterion for inclusion on its storied shelves is not scarcity, but price. Although many of the books in the RBR are indeed quite rare, none of them costs less than $100. That means that many mid-century hardbacks—eminently collectible, eminently affordable—are out there on the everyday shelves of Powell's City of Books, next to more modern reprints (bargain-hunters take note). Second. Although many titles in the RBR are indeed museum-worthy, don't let the prestige fool you: everything's for sale. If you got the foam, they got the tome.

This week, Tome Raider met with RBR's Chris Hagen and Ben Hunter to find out, just what have they got on the shelves right now?

    For the antiquarian

The Title: Sphaera Mundi (1482)
The Author: Johannes de Sacrobosco
The Damage: $17,500

Why? If you're serious about book-collecting, then you've almost certainly got a soft spot for incunables. These antique books—printed between 1450 and 1500, before printers had quite got the kinks worked out of the old Gutenberg movable—represent an awkward yet adorable adolescence for publishing, characterized by near-inscrutable typeface, hand-colored pages and the curious lack of a title page. Sphaera Mundi is onesuch incunable, a widely-dispersed textbook of Ptolemaic astronomy especially desirable for its numerous geometric woodcuts. But don't expect light reading: it's a humor-free text composed entirely in Latin.

Don't Miss: The colophon—the positively precious Medieval equivalent of a copyright. Comprising four inconspicuous lines at the end of the book's last paragraph, it translates: “Holla, ain't no stoppin' me / Copywritten, so—don't copy me.”

    For the young man of leisure

The Title: House of Seven Gables (Association: Virginia Woolf)
The Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Damage: $14,000

Why? The book itself isn't all that impressive—hardly six inches tall, it's a cheap reprint of a real sleeper by Nathaniel Hawthorne. But this cheap reprint happens to have been hand-bound by Virginia Woolf, as a present for her fop nephew Julian Bell. Truth be told, Woolf wasn't all that talented at book binding—kind of hashed it up, if you ask me—but nonetheless, that is her handwriting on the spine, and I suppose that counts for something. And really, if you're going to stuff a cheap hardback in your trousers pocket, why not have it bound by literary royalty?

Don't Miss: Julian Bell's dandyish signature on the endpapers. Aunt Ginny really couldn't bind worth a fiddle, could she?

    For the eccentric

The Title: Rep-Hair-Ation (2007)
The Author: Diane Jacobs
The Damage: $3500

Why? Local book artist Diane Jacobs has made a name for herself working with human hair. Her newest offering—slated for an (extremely) limited release of only 14 copies—is just crawling with the stuff. Hair is sewn, glued and taped to the pages, lending a creepy yet intimate texture to the incarceration-themed work. Combine that with Jacobs' facility for various printing techniques—etching, woodcut, collage, metal type and polymer plates, to name a few—and you've got a visual feast of a book.

Don't miss: The printed-over dollar bill: George Washington, it seems, has grown some deliciously long locks. Also, don't miss author Diane Jacobs' first solo art show, entitled “The Writing's on the Wall,” opening this week at Portland gallery Disjecta.

Below, the RBR's Chris Hagen and Ben Hunter display prints from artist Diane Jacobs.
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