Birth, Death, and Rediscovery

Today is my birthday. As such, through the magic of social media, dozens of friends and colleagues have taken a moment out of their day to acknowledge this, wish me well, and recommend that I enjoy myself in a number of ways. Most of these involve consuming good food, drinking alcoholic beverages, and relaxing, so I am more than happy to comply.

As sometimes happens, though, it got me thinking about our fascination with beginnings and endings: birth and death; first days at school at work, retirements and graduations; weddings and funerals. We craft very precise rituals around such things. The idea of celebrating birthdays has been around for several thousands of years. So has the ceremony surrounding funerals. It’s somewhat of a paradox that we need the finality of death as a reminder to take a moment and look back at a life. Perhaps this is why we also choose to celebrate birthdays. Can you imagine what we would miss if we didn’t?

I see this in the world of books, as well. Readers and collectors are interested in: the first editions of famous works; the first printed example of the word ‘robot’; the earliest published work by their favorite author; the last book to be printed at a particular press before it was lost to fire; etc. My colleagues will also be quick to agree that nothing sells signed books like the death of their author. Morbid, yes, but it’s a fact of the business.

We seem to need these signposts to be able to separate things from the vast sea of noise we encounter every day. Something needs to, figuratively, wave its hands in the air and say, “Excuse me, I’m worthy of your attention today!” Thus, holidays, anniversaries, National ______ Day, the celebration of the foundational and the classic. We do not celebrate the birthday because the day is inherently special, but because the person is significant to us, and that just happens to be the day that a continuous and important event, which we call their life, began. We do not honor someone in death because we want to make a big deal out of death, we do it because we are mourning the loss of something that can never occur again.

Similarly with books: More often than not, collectors have an interest in the first edition, not because that edition is materially better than other editions, but because the object, as a first edition, is a physical representation of when that work’s life began. Collectors of first editions are, in a sense, celebrating the book’s birthday. Those who, upon hearing of an author’s death, immediately seek out signed copies of his/her works, are not celebrating the death, but commemorating the life (though there are perhaps an unscrupulous few who are the exceptions proving this rule).

Significant events also have a way of allowing us to rediscover things, and people. Sometimes the things we rediscover are fairly mundane: we will drink a margarita on Cinco de Mayo, or take a moment to thank a librarian, secretary, or teacher because there is a day when that is the socially appropriate behavior. Over and above these small acts of appreciation, though, are the infinite opportunities for rediscovery of greatness. The world is too vast and complex for us to hold it all in our minds on a daily basis, so instead we should acknowledge the moments that invite us to enjoy a particular aspect of it.

Books are a particularly valuable tool in this sense. They exist in a particular moment, but contain universes, generations, cultures. They are someone’s soul poured into a bottle. They are the simplest form of time capsule, and because of this perhaps the best kind. Each time we take one from the shelf and choose to open it up and see what is within, we are in a sense saying, “Today is your day. Let’s take a moment to remember why you’re special.”

To those that took the time to wish me well today, thank you. As you can see from my ruminations, such things mean a great deal to me, and I am happy to know I mean something to you. For those who took the time today to open a book, thank you also, and enjoy.

Here are a few of the books we recommend celebrating this month:

May 2016



Published in: on May 6, 2016 at 4:08 PM  Comments (1)  

How’s Life?

This morning I found myself asking someone, “How’s life?” It’s a common enough phrase, usually intended to express an interest in the well-being of someone without being too specific. As sometimes happens to me, though, this particular phrase caused an unintended chain reaction in my brain. (Bear with me, this will eventually work its way around to books…)

How’s life?? How can anyone possibly answer this question properly? Life is chaotic. Life is vast and impenetrable. Life is overwhelming and constant. It’s the continuous absurd juxtaposition of being and nothingness, of moments and eternity, of completeness and incompleteness. It’s Oroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, and therefore both never-ending and already finished. How’s life? How’s life??

Sure, this is a bit melodramatic, and anyone responding in this way would be labeled a bit of a nut… but why is that? I think it’s because there are certain types of thinking, certain types of discussion, that we are encouraged to keep to ourselves. The big, scary, existential concepts that, if they are discussed with others, are relegated to philosophy classes. As a result, many people simply avoid them altogether, because pondering them is lonely and difficult (the word ‘ponder’ actually has the sense of carrying a heavy weight).

I would contend that these concepts, and our need to confront them, are part of the reason that reading is so important. Reading is, by nature, an individual activity. It is an accepted method by which we can isolate ourselves, take time to face the enormity of something greater and then, when we have had enough for today, return safely to the comforts of society. I think this has always been my understanding of the value and purpose of reading, though perhaps until now I have not been able to articulate it in quite this way. I have, as a result, been extremely confused by the statement, “I don’t like to read.” To me, it seems synonymous with, “I’m afraid.”

Don’t misunderstand, though. I realize that everyone comes to things in their own time. They will not be forced. That moment when they encounter the same sense of wonder, the wealth of experiences, and the sheer joy that I find in books… it’s still out there somewhere, waiting for them to arrive. It is, for me, real-life dramatic irony (“If they only knew…”). Which is why, instead of responding with the second paragraph above when someone asks me, “How’s life?”, I simply say, “Life is good.”

Published in: on April 26, 2016 at 12:23 PM  Leave a Comment  

Getting Back in the Swing of Things

Many of you will notice I haven’t posted in quite a while. As happens to many of us, I became overly occupied with other things, and did not have the time to properly attend to the blog. It’s happened before, and perhaps it will happen again in the future, but for now my goal is to start posting again regularly. For all of you who have an itch to start something up again, but are hesitating because you feel like people will say, “Don’t you think it’s been too long?”, or that it won’t be the same as it was… Take the leap. Not having done something for a while is no reason not to try it again. In fact, it might be an argument in favor of doing it again. It’s never too late to start over, reinvent yourself, or become something different (and probably better!) than you were.

So, that’s my preamble. Look for regular posts from here onward, mostly related to books, reading, collecting, and the related historical and biographical information. Occasionally, though, I will post things a bit more general (the blog is called Musings, after all). Joining me this time around will be my most recently hired employee, Holly O’Brien, who is a fellow bibliophile with experience in the new book world, and eager to learn more about the used and antiquarian side of things.

Published in: on April 25, 2016 at 11:10 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Perfect Gift?

Many of us know that books make great gifts, and that there is something very special about that perfect book for an important person in one’s life. Yesterday at the shop, I heard perhaps the greatest story in my career to date, illustrating this very concept.

One of our regular customers, who I have seen before, but with whom I had not had a chance to converse at length, came to the counter with her selections. An inquiry about which hardcover copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot she should buy turned into a discussion of the advantages of different translations from the Russian. To borrow a phrase from Elaine on Seinfeld, yada yada yada… the customer ends up telling me that, on one of her first trips to the store, she saw that we had two copies of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

She returned later to purchase one as a gift for her husband, who had been with her during her first visit. Fast forward to their anniversary: he hands her a gift to unwrap, and it’s… the other copy. These two must be a great match for one another, because they both went to some trouble to acquire that perfect gift, and it turned out to be the same book. It is as poignant as The Gift of the Magi, but without the sacrifice. Although they were stuck with an extra copy (I don’t recall either of them returning to attempt an exchange), I imagine they did not mind, because they had, in those two simple objects, an affirmation of their choices more real than they ever could have created on purpose.

The story made my day (alright, let’s be honest, my week – I am certain I will repeat this to anyone who will listen, and probably to many who would rather not, for years to come), and immediately an idea gripped me. I walked to the poetry section and grabbed a postcard edition of Ginsberg’s The Rune, one of two versions I had purchased several years back. The other (better) version, which included Ginsberg’s handwritten version in holograph on the reverse, sold quite some time ago, but this one had been living at my shop for long enough that I decided it was time that it put a smile on someone’s face.

Arriving back at the counter, I handed it to her and said, “This is yours now, too.” I told her about the other version, and suggested that perhaps it would be fun for her and her husband to track down that one together.

She insisted on hugging me in thanks, but I refused to take anything beyond that. Because, after all, owning a bookstore is about stories. Not just the stories contained in all the volumes that cross my desk each day, but the stories of the people I meet, come to know, and in many cases befriend. I am lucky to be in a profession that allows me occasionally to glimpse the effects of the ripples that I send out into the world. So, to everyone who plays a part in making that possible: Thank you. It is the perfect gift.

Published in: on February 6, 2015 at 1:17 PM  Leave a Comment  

On First Editions – A Commentary on the Recent ‘Iliad’ Debacle in the Latest J-Lo Film

In the interest of furthering knowledge about books and book collecting, I feel obligated to comment on this story, and on some of the discussion it has created. For those who have not read the story, there is a link to the article below.

First of all, yes, The Iliad is several thousand years old, meaning that a modern volume such as the one pictured cannot possibly be the first edition. And many have, quite rightly, blasted the scene as ridiculous and ill-researched. So, why do we see some people stepping up in defense of the film, saying ‘Maybe it was a first printing of that edition?’

It seems we need to define our terms here, because what we have is a classic example of equivocation:

The first group takes ‘first edition’ to mean the first appearance of the book in print (and, more specifically, the first print run of that appearance, not a subsequent reprint of the identical text).

The second group is apparently interpreting ‘first edition’ to mean the first printing of any unique version of a text. So, if Little, Brown takes a book published by, Harper, uses the exact same text, but puts it in a new binding with new jacket art, boom – there’s another first edition.

It’s easy to see how anyone but an expert would get confused at this point. But it gets worse.

The bibliographic definition of a first edition, which is accepted by many scholars, states that as long as the original text is not altered, technically any subsequent reprinting of that text is still the first edition.

This stands in contrast to the antiquarian booksellers’ definition, which is the one referenced above by the first group; i.e., when a rare book dealer states that something is a first edition, they mean it is part the first printing of the first appearance of that work in print. For anything subsequent to that, a conscientious seller must use some sort of modifier; e.g., ‘First illustrated edition’; ‘First American edition’. These latter examples all fall under the blanket term ‘first thus’, which is an abbreviated form of ‘first example of the book in this form’, often used in print catalogs, and should not be confused with ‘first edition’. Many traditional booksellers dislike this term, though, because it causes the very sort of confusion we are discussing here. After all, a reprint is a reprint.

So, long story short, yes, the movie did make an error. But it is one that is being made frequently in the world of books, and is more difficult to recognize when there isn’t a glaring discrepancy in publication date, as with this example. This error is one of the many reasons it is important for book collectors (or buyers of the occasional gift for the family bibliophile) to deal with knowledgeable merchants who understand these distinctions, possess the proper references to discern and describe these characteristics for a wide range of books, and have the experience to determine how the edition of a book affects its value.

Published in: on February 5, 2015 at 12:45 PM  Leave a Comment  

Yesterday’s Muse Books Best of 2013 Catalog

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Published in: on December 9, 2013 at 11:35 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Holiday Book Drive and Christmas 2013 Catalog

We have been hard at work putting together what we think will be a great program for this holiday season. Partnering with several local charitable organizations, we will be hosting a holiday book drive to collect books for donation to those less fortunate. Interested in participating? It’s simple. If you have new or gently used books you would like to donate, please contact us or drop by our store with them. If you would like to buy books for the purpose of donating them, you can purchase from us and receive a gift certificate towards your next visit, or you can purchase elsewhere and drop them off to us.

We want to make this easy – the idea is to make books available to those who might not otherwise have access to them. We want to promote literacy, and spread a little holiday cheer at the same time. We understand not everyone has the financial ability to offer donations. If you cannot personally contribute, please consider sharing the information about our book drive program with friends and family. The more people who know about it, the more successful it will be.

Interested in contributing, but not sure what to donate? We’ve put together a catalog of holiday titles that will be sure to put smiles on the faces of those who receive them as gifts. Make sure to check out the book drive flyer and catalog below! Please feel free to contact us with any questions about the book drive program. Happy holidays!

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Jonathan Smalter, Bookseller, ABAA, ILAB, IOBA
Yesterday’s Muse Books
32 W Main St Ste 1
Webster, NY 14580

October 2013 Highlights Catalog

We have been hard at work and haven’t updated the blog in a while, but here is our most recent selection of highlights for your perusal. Enjoy!


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September 2013 Newsletter

For those not on our mailing list, here is a look at our latest newsletter. We’ve also embedded our latest new acquisitions list at the end of the post:


Another month has come and gone, and as always we have been busy booksellers. This past weekend we exhibited at the 41st Annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair. We had more dealers than usual this year, and enjoyed a record turnout of browsers and bibliophiles. Everyone seemed very pleased with the Main Street Armory, the new venue for this year’s event. Here is a photo taken by one of our colleagues of myself and my fiancee Kristine:

Booths were bustling with activity throughout the day as customers inquired about books on display, or asked questions about their own collections. We purchased a number of items ourselves, including a first American edition of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a set of Shakespeare’s works in an attractive silk-lined publisher’s case, and a small collection of travel literature featuring decorative cover designs by A. & C. Black publishers.

Watch for these, and a number of interesting and scarce items acquired at the end of August, in next month’s newsletter. But first, have a look at what we have been working on for the last month:

New Acquisitions – Highlights

New Acquisitions – Complete

See a few things you like? Enter coupon code S10TWO013 during checkout, and when you buy three books you get another FREE! (Please make sure you have at least four books in your shopping cart, or the discount won’t work.)

Below is one of our favorites from this month’s acquisitions, a limited edition of Shakespeare’s complete works inspired by the famous Shakespeare Head Press edition printed in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon (commonly known as the Stratford Town Shakespeare).

The Works of William Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes – Shakespeare Head Press Limited Edition, #585 of 1000


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A hearty helping of Shakespeare

The Works of William Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes


We couldn’t wait until our next newsletter to share this gem with our followers:

[The Stratford Town Shakespeare]
Shakespeare, William; Clark, William George; Wright, William Aldis
The Works of William Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes – Shakespeare Head Press Limited Edition, #585 of 1000
Duffield & Company, New York / Shakespeare Head Press, Stratford-upon-Avon 1904. Limited edition, #585 of 1000. Large 8vo. Complete in ten hardcover volumes. Original beige cloth, paper spine labels. Printed on laid paper in a limitation of 1000 copies. This was the first work to be released by the Shakespeare Head Press, which was a fine press in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon which undertook to carry on the sort of printing that the Kelmscott Press made famous. It is to this day the only complete set of his works to be produced in his hometown, and is often called The Stratford Town Shakespeare. This set was reproduced by Duffield & Company of New York in another limitation of 1000, which is the set offered here.

Very good. No jackets. Spine labels toned with loss from two volumes, boards of a couple volumes lightly soiled. Descriptive label tipped in on front endpaper of first volume.



Published in: on August 12, 2013 at 2:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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