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First Person Singular: Bookseller Brian Cassidy

Sunday, October 3, 2010; W02

In a room full of established book dealers, I'm always the youngest by at least 20 years. But that can be good for business. If you talk to older book dealers, you'll often hear them lament there are no young collectors. That is just not true. It's just that the new collectors are buying things that are different than what's even on the radar of most book dealers.

My first big find was a first-edition "The Great Gatsby" for $3 at a yard sale in New Jersey. You cannot identify most first editions just by looking, but I suspected it was and knew it was worth the $3 to find out. For "The Great Gatsby," there are points -- particular physical details that have to be there for it to be a first edition: a period here and typo on Page 24, those kind of things. So I had to get home to my reference books. The points were all there!I sold it for $1,200 to another dealer, who, if he knew what he was doing, likely sold it for $3,000 or $4,000.

My best find? I bought something for $20 and sold it for $10,000. That's really all I want to say, because I bought it from another dealer who just didn't know what exactly he was holding onto. I can't blame him: It just wasn't obvious. I spent a year -- a year -- of solid research to verify it was actually what I thought it might be. But I think he'd rather not know.

I stopped collecting when I became a serious dealer, because there's too much of a temptation to hold something back. That's how you stop making a living and start being a collector in dealer's clothes. You catch and release. We capture something exotic, unusual, get a rare snapshot and let it go, for a price. The thrill for me is the finding.

I originally set out to be a poet. I thought I'd be a tenured professor, writing a couple of books a year. But all the things I loved about academia -- the research, digging into the nooks and crannies of history and literature -- it's all still here. This is what I've always loved. I remember sitting in the stacks at graduate school, reading old literary journals. And now I have all those things I couldn't take out of the library in my own collection.

You can tell a lot about people from their books -- sometimes more than you want to know. Once, a guy called to see if I wanted his father's books. He just wanted them gone, didn't want anything to do with them. I was just starting out and had no stock, so I took them all: 10 moving boxes full of books. In each box, very evenly distributed, were four or five pornographic novels. They all looked like they'd been stuck behind the other books on the shelves, hidden. I still wonder if the son even knew. I am always trying to surreptitiously steal a glance at our friends' bookshelves -- not because I'm looking for books to sell, but because people's books can reveal so much of their own story.

Interview by Amanda Long

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