Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rare Book Trading Cards On Santa's Top Shelf

I’ll trade ya a Tarzan 1st for a Moby Dick 1st.
What’ya crazy? S’like asking me to trade a Mickey Mantle for
a Whitey Ford. Take a long walk off a short pier, pal.

When book collectors congregate they like to trade stories about the book that got away, their latest acquisition, one-up each other, relate bibliographical points, how many hairs did Hemingway have in his beard while writing whatever and what percentage were grey, etc., etc.

Now collectors can trade classic rare book cards. They're like baseball cards for bibliophiles who want to know the score.

ABAA modern firsts specialists, Between the Covers (BTC), in association with Biblioctopus, has created 228 trading cards of the classic, most desirable rare books and packaged them into three sets of seventy-six cards each. Like baseball cards, the upper panel features a great portrait, the rear panel providing vital stats: Place, Date, Edition, Binding, Condition, and selling Price, along with a brief description.

Sort of like porn for book sluts and hound dogs. They’re the ideal stocking stuffers this, or any, year.

The books (often inscribed, presentation or association copies) and descriptions are culled from the catalogues of BTC and Biblioctopus. Fans of the catalogues of Mark Hime, the ABAA’s resident misanthropic quipster-curmudgeon and proprietor of Biblioctopus, will be in for a treat as his irreverent cataloging style and comments have made it onto the cards intact.

The cards, each 3 5/8 x 2 3/4 inches, are $20 per set, $50 for all three. They can be ordered direct from BTC here.

Dan Gregory, manager and majordomo of Between the Covers, told us how the whole project began.

“I think the original idea for doing a book catalog in the form of collectable trading cards came from Mark Hime. Mark had done several unusual format catalogs in the past -- a few poster catalogs issued to coincide with bookfairs, and an elaborate joke catalog of famous fictional objects (Huck Finn's fishing rod, etc.) Around the middle of 1997, when Between the Covers started to issue catalogs in which every book was pictured individually and in color, Tom and Mark talked about collaborating on such a set. I came up with the design, and worked out the technical specifications (for example, how thick a card stock would yield the right number of cards to fit perfectly on a press sheet AND when cut would fit perfectly into available plastic set holders, etc.).

A fine copy in a fine dust jacket now sells for $100,000+
“The idea from the outset was to create a 'greatest hits' catalog of outstanding material that had not sold out of previous catalogs -- we're booksellers after all. Quite a few good books were deemed too obscure. When you only have a sentence or two to describe a book, the inherent desirability of the book has to be a pretty obvious to start. I took existing descriptions and edited them down for space, and Tom (Congalton) and Mark each had a hand finalizing the text.

“The chemise for the first set was patterned after a 19th Century half leather binding. For the second set I took a 1950s Mickey Spillane pulp paperback and reworked the art so that the femme fatale is protecting a book. The chemise of the final set was taken from a 1920s Bonet binding (from an original loaned to me by Priscilla Juvelis). Throughout the three sets we took care not to repeat the edition of any single title.

“We actually have some uncut press sheets for each set -- they make a really cool poster and we wanted to sell them or give them away but the sheet is too thick to roll and difficult to ship, so they are buried somewhere in our building, waiting to be discovered by another generation of booksellers.

“We're often asked if we'll do a fourth set, but I have little interest. First, given our inventory and the card sets' emphasis on 'high spots,' it is difficult to avoid duplicating titles. Second, there's a nice symmetry to the suite of three (it's a ‘magic number’ my kids sing to me).”

We asked Tom Congalton, proprietor of BTC, to comment about the scandalous absence of bubble gum in each set of Classic Book Cards but he, justifiably, appears to think the question too silly to respond to. Mark Hime, who has made it his sacred duty to worship at the Church of Latter-Day Luddites, can only be reached via bush telegraph beating log-drums, smoke signals, or vintage '40's rotary desk phone while taking a bottle out of the bottom drawer, pouring himself a stiff one, chair back, feet up, and imagining Mary Astor as the deceitful, amoral dame who knew no boundaries, had a mosquito's heart, a vampire's greed, and knew how to handle a gat: She was trouble but he specialized in trouble.

“It was the best copy in the world and she had to have it - But she wasn’t going to pay in cash...” (Mark Hime, L.A. rare book dealer, moonlight gumshoe, and cousin of Mike Hammer).

Yet she wasn't interested in paying with what he presumed she was interested in paying with, so he negotiated with the treacherous jane and sold her all three sets of Classic Book Cards in exchange for a chaste kiss on his cheek and a so long, sucker.

(Between the Covers accepts standard forms of payment). 

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