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Bookseller Q&A: Yesterday’s Muse


Jonathan Smalter in front of his bookstore, Yesterday's Muse.

Jonathan Smalter in front of his bookstore, Yesterday’s Muse.

Located in Webster, New York, AbeBooks bookseller Yesterday’s Muse offers a everything from American and military history books, to literature and finely illustrated editions. Owner Jonathan Smalter is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), the association that represents the nation’s finest booksellers. He is a 2011 graduate of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS), and has served as co-organizer of the annual Rochester (NY) Antiquarian Book Fair since 2013. With over over fifteen years of experience in the book industry, we were eager to ask Jonathan a few questions about his trade.

AbeBooks: How did you become a bookseller?

Jonathan: I began working at a used bookstore when I was 17, and began selling books online in a limited capacity during college. Upon graduating, I pursued this full time, and have done so ever since. This year will mark the point at which I can say that I have been selling books professionally for half my life (I will be 34 in May). I opened my ‘brick & mortar’ shop in December of 2008.

AbeBooks: What do you love most about selling books?

Jonathan: I enjoy book selling because every day is different, and I get to learn new things constantly. Researching unusual and scarce material is a challenge, and meeting fellow bibliophiles (both customers and colleagues), who always seem willing – sometimes eager – to share their knowledge, keeps life interesting.

AbeBooks: What is the most prized item in your inventory? Why?

Jonathan: Currently I own a second American edition of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, which is significant for two reasons: 1) This particular copy was owned by four generations of the Beecher-Stowe family (Lyman Beecher; Harriet Beecher-Stowe and her husband [the latter jotted marginal notes on one page]; and their son and grandson). 2) This specific copy of the book is mentioned in Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s ‘Poganuc People’: “It was a happy hour when [father] brought home and set up in his book-case Cotton Mather’s Magnalia, in a new edition of two volumes.” The work itself is an important one, but what I love most is describing the process of researching the provenance.

Yesterday's Muse

Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, owned by four generations of the Beecher-Stowe family.

AbeBooks: What’s the one book you covet most? Why?

Jonathan: Choosing one is difficult, so I’ll cheat and give you two answers. The first is a signed copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in the limited edition with Johns-Manville Quinterra (asbestos) boards. The second, which is my favorite book, I have had in the first edition, signed by the author: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. This was early in my career, when keeping books for myself was less advisable, so I no longer have it. I think perhaps I covet the latter more because I let it get away once. Both are available, but I would prefer to find them ‘in the field’ if I am going to add them to my personal collection… so the hunt continues.

AbeBooks: What’s the oddest thing you’ve found in a book?

Jonathan: While not the oddest single object taken by itself, I thought the Ku Klux Klan pamphlet I found laid into a copy of the Bible was among the interfoliata more worthy of remark. I kept them together initially, with note on the somewhat troubling juxtaposition included in my description. Recently, though, a customer purchased the Bible and requested that the pamphlet not be included with his order.

AbeBooks: What’s your most memorable moment as a bookseller?

Jonathan: While I cannot properly call it a single moment, I think attending the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in 2011 was a pivotal event in my career. Since then I have become a member of the ABAA, established more professional relationships, made more friends in the trade, and pursued a wider range of activities related to the book trade. This year will be my first year organizing the Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, and I am also president of the Rochester Bibliophile Society. I think all these accomplishments can trace their roots back to the seminar in Colorado.

AbeBooks: And of course, what’s your favorite book?

Jonathan: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. It is among a very few books I have read more than twice.

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