Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Feb 2024

Old & Rare by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern

Book collectors are a strange bunch. What they collect ranges from the obsessively narrow to the fringes of compulsive hoarding and once they have been bitten by the collecting bug there’s usually no turning back. I count myself as a collector of sorts but compared to the hardcore collector, I’m a novice, a mere scavenger on the periphery. I try to limit my acquisitive urges by having one very strict rule – only to ever buy a book that I would read and never to buy books simply because they might be ‘collectable’ but deal in topics for which I have not the slightest interest. So, no travel, transport, local history, cookery…..the list goes on.

But if book collectors are an odd bunch, then book dealers are equally weird in my view. It’s been my experience from the booksellers I have got to know, that dealing in books often kills any love they might have of reading. They no longer see books as repositories of information or artistic and cultural heritage but as objects to be traded – desirable only if someone else might find them desirable and pay them handsomely for the privilege of owning it.

Of course, not all book dealers are the same or seek to play in the same pool. The shop trading in a few popular hardbacks and tons of cheap paperbacks is in a wholly different league to the (often long-established) dealers who trade in rarities that fetch thousands of pounds or dollars – it’s as if they are wholly different species. But, having said that, there’s no doubt that there is a DNA link between them – both want to buy low and sell higher and the book, in the end, is merely an object passing through their hands.

The booksellers that are the greatest mystery to me however are the antiquarian dealers who trade exclusively in books that pre-date the mass market. They are interested in the books that have survived from a time when books were an expensive luxury available only to the rich and powerful and in very small numbers. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were examples of the kind of antiquarian dealer who probably no longer exists in the way in which they operated. These two women were pioneering both in the way they broke many gender stereotypes and in their approach to their trade. This book, Old & Rare, tells the story of how the two women came together in partnership and how they developed their business in the post-Second World War environment.

The two women set down their memories of their early education and how they almost fell into the antiquarian book trade and they share the writing of the story in alternating chapters. I have to say that neither are remarkable stylists and you might be hard put to to spot who is the author at any given moment but you won’t be reading this book for its literary style. What’s really fascinating is the insight it gives into a world of book hunting that is completely impossible to imagine today.

Much of the book is focussed on the time they spent in the bookshops of London (and a few chosen locations outside the capital) immediately after the war. The privations of rationing, the bombing and destruction of London are vividly evoked but what is really astonishing is the number of bookshops that seem to have survived and which, at that time, seemed to be packed with historically significant antiquarian books stuffed in attics and basements.

Later they would also spend time in post-war Paris – which was certainly a different but not wholly untroubled experience in its own right.

The books they found on their annual return visits would be shipped back to the U.S. and would form the basis of published catalogues that would be mailed out to potential clients – this was, of course, the pre-internet age. The two women took great delight in ‘placing’ a book with exactly the right individual or institution and many significant libraries benefitted from their diligence.

But, of course, the riches to be found amidst the chaos couldn’t last forever and as each year passed the pickings got ever slimmer. It wasn’t just the books that were disappearing it was the whole world of book dealing that was on the change and it would take these two rather delightful women with it.

Paperback copies of the book – retitled ‘Old Books, Rare Friends’ – can be found online and the original hardback is there too if you fancy that instead.


Terry Potter

February 2024