Rare books expert recounts fantastic finds

'Rare Books Uncovered.' ISBN: 9780760348611
hardcover, 256 pages with 24 b/w & color photos. Voyageur Press

‘Rare Books Uncovered.’ ISBN: 9780760348611
hardcover, 256 pages with 24 b/w & color photos. Voyageur Press


MINNEAPOLIS – Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In fact, book collecting is the only pastime that has a clinically diagnosable illness – bibliomania – to describe its more obsessive hobbyists. The focus of their desire is seemingly limitless: Centuries’ worth of rare and unique tomes, manuscripts and historical documents are out there, everywhere, each with unique stories and histories. In her new book, Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts some of these remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting.

Barry’s passion for books started as a teenager, haunting library book sales and tiny independent bookshops. A voracious reader, she volunteered at her local public library in New Jersey, interned at Random House during college, and worked for Simon & Schuster after graduation. Despite her bibliophilic tendencies, Barry never regarded herself as a collector until she came across a copy of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at a church book sale. Although familiar with Miller’s work, “it never occurred to me to check whether the copy was a first edition or not,” Barry says. Upon closer examination a few months later, a blue card flitted out of book. It was, she came to realize, a press pass issued in 1931 to renowned journalist William Shirer from the Chicago Tribune. Further research and detective work, including tracking down Shirer’s family members, revealed that Shirer and Miller were acquaintances and colleagues in the 1950s. Barry believes the book to be Shirer’s copy (a first edition) of Miller’s masterpiece, into which he used an old press pass as a bookmark— a real treasure, found for $1.

Barry soon realized she’d “rather be working with ‘old’ books instead of new ones.”
She returned to graduate school, earning a master’s degree in book history at Drew University, and then went to work in the university library’s conservation department, where books in need of repair go to get fixed. “It was amazing,” says Barry. “I loved working with old books in a hands-on way.” She began working in the university’s archives as well, gaining an appreciation for manuscripts and historical documents.

Today, Barry is the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine and hearing so many extraordinary tales of treasures found – and, alas, of those that got away – fueled and informed the writing of Rare Books Uncovered. Bibliophiles relish such tales. In Rare Books Uncovered, there are 52 individual stories from collectors, dealers, librarians and others, each entertaining, educational, and inspirational. There’s the Texas family whose discovery of 300+ vintage comics in a basement closet netted them $3.5 million. And the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. And the collector who, when called by a friend to go dumpster diving, turned up a valuable piece of New York City history. These believe-it-or-not “barn finds” will delight casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike.

Great books are out there – in Philadelphia flea markets, California swap meets, and English country homes – and discovering one, whether by chance or single-minded pursuit is a pleasure worth savoring and sharing. Just like every angler with a fantastic fish tale to share, every book collector has at least one great “find” to reveal. Rare Books Uncovered celebrates the scouts, the books, and the thrill of the hunt.

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry is the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine, a glossy quarterly for book and fine art collectors, dealers, curators, and librarians. She has also written about books and history for various publications, including The Guardian, JSTOR Daily, Preservation, The Millions, Barnes & Noble Review, The Awl, The Economist, and Victoria. A member of the Ticknor Society, a book collectors’ club based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her personal collecting specialties are 19th- and early 20th-century illustrated medical books, and Henry David Thoreau. She lives with her family in New York’s Catskill Mountains.