5 Questions with Rebecca Romney

A series of informal, intimate talks given by literary and cultural luminaries, In Conversation with the Rosenbach delves into fascinating histories, intellectual curiosities, and inspiring ideas. Each program offers the audience a chance to join the conversation after the talk and share their own thoughts and questions. On April 27, rare book expert and Pawn Stars personality Rebecca Romney will join us to recount some of the strangest and most curious episodes in the history of Western printing.

Rebecca Romney. Photo credit: Dave Pappas.

Rosenblog: Your book, Printer’s Error, recounts stories from that involve many well-known, larger-than-life literary personalities: Ben Franklin and William Blake among others. Are there any key figures in print history that you wish were better known in the present day?

Rebecca Romney: This is a bit of a softball because that’s kind of what Printer’s Error is all about. T.J. Cobden-Sanderson of the Doves Press and Bindery, who gets a full chapter in the book, is a good example. However, I would slightly disagree that the figures you mention are well known in the context of print history. Yes, people know Franklin, and they know that he was a printer. But they generally don’t know the extent of his contributions to the network of print that connected the American colonies leading up to (and during) the Revolutionary War. Similarly, many know William Blake and his poetry, but fewer know how intimately connected his poems’ meanings are to their accompanying artwork. Yes: these are stories well known in specialist circles (both the Academy and the trade), but they are hardly known at all outside of them. Hence Printer’s Error, which is meant to introduce these stories to a popular audience.

That said, the fact of the matter is: you can dig just about anywhere in the history of print and find fascinating characters. Perhaps we’ll have to write a sequel with the likes of the 17th-century radical printer Hannah Allen, or the 16th century patent-hater turned patent-defender John Wolfe. So many choices.

RB: You’ve worked for national rare book company with offices in Las Vegas and Philadelphia, and now for a new Brooklyn-based company, Honey & Wax Booksellers. Are there significant differences in the rare book business in different regions?

RR: It’s not the region that makes a difference so much as the specialty. Honey & Wax Booksellers distinguishes itself by a very specific eye which is quite different from Bauman Rare Books, where I got my start. At Bauman, in fact, we sold pretty much the same books in a casino in Las Vegas as we sold on Madison Avenue in New York. It’s more about the force and personality driving the business, and who is drawn to the kind of books you’ve specially chosen. Take a look at a Honey & Wax catalog and you’ll immediately see what I mean.

RB: As a rare book library and research center, we spend a lot of time thinking about what’s remarkable and irreplaceable about handling rare or one-of-a-kind texts. But we’d love to hear your perspective on the attraction these objects still hold for contemporary collectors.

RR: This is the thesis of our chapter in Printer’s Error on William Blake: details unavoidably get lost in translation when a work is taken out of its original context. Collectors, it seems to me, want a connection to something in history that matters to them. The book (or manuscript, etc.) is a time capsule, a direct link, to that moment in history. Collectors are also driven by an impulse to gather, to organize, to preserve. There’s always been a symbiotic relationship between the rare book trade, collectors, and institutions, who all benefit from the others’ activities. And just to lob a bomb in at the end: especially in this “post fact” world, we need to preserve the primary source documents that tell us what happened, and how it happened.

RB: One of our founders, Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, compared rare book collecting to detective work. What characteristics do you think are most beneficial to your line of work?

RR: Another softball, seeing as I’m a proud Sherlockian. In fact, my friends will tell you with a roll of their eyes that I literally use “Sherlock” as a verb when I’ve traced down some unexpected solution using methods similar to the Master’s. It’s not uncommon for a dealer to Sherlock a difficult book or manuscript. I did this just recently when I suspected, and then verified, that a gorgeous watercolor sketchbook we had acquired wasn’t painted by a mysterious artist who went by “S.K.M.,” as many before us had supposed. Rather, “S.K.M.” actually referred to the place of the sketches: the South Kensington Museum, which was the name of the Victoria & Albert Museum before it was changed in the late 1890s. The sketchbook turned out to be a stunning example of the philosophy of the South Kensington Circle (Owen Jones, Henry Cole, Richard Glazier, etc.) at work.

But finally to your point: one of the most beneficial characteristics of both a good detective and a good antiquarian book dealer is acute observation of frequently overlooked details.

RB: What’s your favorite book or object at the Rosenbach?

That’s a difficult question, and one that would probably change day to day. As a demonstration of my discomfort in attempting to answer it, I’m going to choose an entire room instead: the carefully preserved living room of Marianne Moore. I’ve mentioned context a few times here; to see her working library in its home context is a rare treat.

A glimpse of Marianne Moore’s bookshelf. Photo by Leah Comisky.