Appearing on Culture Concept Circle website, January 23, 2017
Rare Books Have Remarkable Stories to Tell, says Derek Parker
“Every house has a bookcase,” says Douglas Stewart, the principal of Douglas Stewart Fine Books, “and every bookcase should have some rare, special, meaningful books.”
Douglas is proud of a first-edition of the well-known artist and author Australian Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding: Being The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff, which is in near-mint condition.
He speaks as someone who has been buying and selling books since he was very young, although his current store in Armadale, Melbourne in Victoria, opened in 2013.
“There’s no course that teaches this,” he says. “You learn by doing. But you have to have the passion for it, you have to understand the transformative power of books and related material.”
One of his recent acquisitions is a large hymn book, used in Utrecht in the seventeenth century. It was meant to be displayed to, and followed by, the church audience.
Written by hand on vellum and in a monastic binding, it has stood up remarkably well, although there are a few signs of wear and repair.
“In the case of this piece, those marks are part of the book’s journey,” Douglas notes. “A rare book can have a lot to say, even beyond its contents. It’s like a piece of history speaking to you.”
Another highly significant piece is a carved stone-printing block from China, used to print paper money in 1287, the era of Kublai Khan.
Despite having had a turbulent ride through history – it was recovered in an archaeological dig in the early twentieth century – it is in very good condition, and its original purpose is clear.
“We exhibited that piece in Hong Kong, and it is part of an increasing global interest in rare Chinese books, maps, and publishing items,” says Douglas.
“Many people of Chinese background who have settled in other countries are now wanting to look back to their cultural roots.”
A large part of Douglas’ job is to exhibit at book fairs around the world. In 2016, he exhibited material at ten major events.
“My life has a large element of show-and-tell,” he says. “And that is exactly how I like it.”First editions of books that are famous are always popular. Australian-themed children’s books are another area where there is rising interest.
Private collectors or public institutions acquire many of his more expensive pieces but he explains that his clientele is much broader than might be expected.
“A lot of people start with an area that interests them, such as an artistic period or a style of writing,” he says. “Yes, you can spend a lot of money if you want, and certainly I’m not going to stop anyone from doing that.
But you can also acquire, for example, a signed first-edition copy of the Peter Carey novel Bliss for a very reasonable amount. It’s the sort of thing that can be the seed for a significant collection. Book collectors are everywhere.
“Yes, rare books can be a good financial investment, but my feeling is that that’s not why most people acquire them. They buy them for the privilege of holding them. They feel that a rare book enriches their life – and of course they are right.
The trend is towards people buying a small number of items that are of high quality and have resonance for them, rather than whole shelves of books without particular meaning.
Sometimes it might not be a book: an item we are currently handling is the sale of a bound set of Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette. It was printed in 1803, on the press that arrived with the First Fleet, so it has an outstanding place in our culture and history.”
As for whether he has a favourite among all the pieces that have passed through his hands, Douglas comes up with a surprising answer.
“It was just one page, or rather, one page on two occasions,” he says. “They were from the Gutenberg Bibles, the first book printed. You could feel the history attached to them.
That’s when you truly understand why rare books are so important.”