On a Soapbox
We must all hang together, or we shall assuredly all hang separately"
Collectors collect what they know. Older collectors have known the classics, older fiction and history and collected these subjects with gusto. Their children, with ever emerging fresh values and more access to information know both more about the world and much less about the subjects that inspired their parents to collect. This has lead booksellers to believe this next generation isn’t collecting. They are but are collecting different things and their interests increasingly fall outside what traditional book, manuscript, map and ephemera dealers handle.
Recently a close to perfect copy of the first appearance of Superman in comic book form  sold for $2,161,000. An iconic item no doubt but to put it in context it was the second most expensive lot sold at auction in the books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera field in 2011. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln had their moments but Superman beat them all.
This kind of makes sense if you believe that people collect what they know. Today’s collectors grew up with Superman and have lived long enough to see the man transformed from comic book character into screen star. Such exposure encourages interest and among the millions exposed a few have chosen to pursue him as a collectible. It’s hardly surprising.
Inadvertently this transaction brackets other collectibles into worth more than and less than categories and it tells us that almost every book on the planet in 2011 was worth less than this comic book. The commercial value of important paper collectibles, although significant and often rare, is apparently not so much and if so we have only ourselves to blame. We haven’t tried to make the case to future generations – probably assuming others would. Or perhaps we are all Darwinians and on the wrong side of the intellectual revolution but I doubt it.
Today bookstores disappear with depressing regularity while online data grows exponentially, trends that are probably unalterable. But with the loss of bookstores so too dies the traditional mechanism by which many the browsing innocent become the fledgling collector. Certainly collectors, for generations, have come by their passion in myriad ways but whether shops were the primary or a secondary factor in giving impetus to collecting their decline deeply undermines the germination of collector passion. The “oh it's online if you’re interested” alternative these days is nothing more than saying if you are looking for a squid look in the ocean. The old and rare bookstore was the often-mysterious place for intense exposure to the unusual and unpredictable and the emotional connection such material could engender. These days you can find the material online but it does not convey the magic of the old time shop. Their gathering absence is becoming a significant impediment to the nurturing of new collectors.
On a Soapbox
This said, if the problem is acknowledged, solutions could be developed. The bookshop was actually the confluence of several factors, the grey-haired mystic, guard and guide; the material; and the feeling such places engendered. We cannot reconstruct the entire experience but we can construct an effective alternative. These days these mystics still exist and arguably they are more compelling for their experiences across the now multi-threaded experience of living with and sometimes off books. We simply need to capture them on film, both in debate and in teaching, to convey the intellectual stimulation, interest, excitement and humor of the field. We need perspective, what that old man behind the counter provided when he pointed “its in the back, on the left. Bring it here and I’ll explain it.”
These days such presentations should be filmed and posted to YouTube and other sites. In time 50 or 100 such presentations will vie for most watched in the category and we learn what is effective. As well we can ask the willing to post links on their sites to these perspectives. In time, together, this could become a force and further debates and presentations elaborate the possibilities.
For today we need to find a way to bring the best minds, the motivated and entertaining together to create these presentations. We won’t be able to emulate the mildew and must of the old bookshop but the spirit, logic, and excitement of collecting – that can be renewed and updated.
If we succeed a generation hence the outcry won’t be “where are they?” Rather it will be “what do we do with them all?”