John M. Leger is a Hopewell bookseller and former editor at The Wall Street Journal. He operates under the trade name Le Bookiniste. He doesn’t have a shop, but you can see his books at lebookiniste.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Rummaging through some pamphlets at a flea market, I came across something odd: a pamphlet with no indication of the author, publisher or printer. Just a tiny union label on the last page.
But I found the contents intriguing because the pamphlet contained, among other things, a full transcript of Vice President Richard Nixon’s famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
As a bookseller, one of my specialties is material related to the Cold War, so this was a fantastic discovery. I gladly paid the seller’s modest asking price and went to work researching the pamphlet. I found there were no other copies listed for sale online. And among libraries and museums, only the University of Southern California had a copy— buried in its collection of papers of longtime Nixon aide Herbert Klein. This was enough to convince me that I had a rare pamphlet and priced it accordingly. I later sold it to a collector who visited my booth at a Washington antiquarian book fair.
For me, the most fun part of bookselling is not the sale. It’s the hunt for the unusual or the unique. While I do find things at flea markets, it’s just as likely that I’ll find interesting material during “house calls” here in the Hopewell-Princeton area. For example, I recently purchased a first American edition of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac from a woman in Princeton. This book is noteworthy because the first U.S. edition, published in 1898, was in French and preceded the English-language edition. The book is not yet for sale, as I’m still researching it. It has a fascinating bookplate of a previous owner, so this is another part of the hunt that I find so interesting.
One of my favorite finds comes from a shop I visited last summer in Switzerland. It’s a 62-page German-language booklet by type designer Paul Renner called “Kulturbolschewismus?” The booklet is a furious denunciation of Nazi cultural policy, published in 1932, a year before the Nazis came to power. The title refers to a term thrown around by the Nazis in the early 1930s, suggesting Modern art and architecture were non-Germanic and therefore Bolshevik. When the Nazis took over, Renner lost his teaching job in Munich, and the booklets were removed from the market and presumably destroyed. Needless to say, few copies survived; this one did.
I find that I’m drawn increasingly to ephemera, which is material that wasn’t expected to last very long. For instance, pamphlets like the Nixon piece. Or WWII brochures that the Nazis dropped on American and allied troops to undermine their morale. Or flyers announcing poetry readings, antiwar protests, and the like. Material like this is usually far from common, which makes it more appealing to serious collectors and institutions such as libraries and museums.
That said, not all ephemera is rare or valuable. During the 1950’s and ’60’s, the Communist Party USA issued hundreds of brochures, each with print runs in the thousands. These brochures don’t have great monetary value, but they’re interesting because their graphics were often quite bold and striking.
I exhibit my discoveries at 8 to 10 antiquarian book fairs a year, mostly in New York, Boston and Washington. And I’ve taken part several times in the Oh-la-la! Ephemeral Boutique in Hopewell and Princeton. Although I won’t be exhibiting at Oh-la-la! in May, I hope to put on an exhibition and sale later this year at Hopewell’s historic train station.
Oh, yes. Nixon and Khrushchev and their Kitchen Debate? Nixon more than held his own against the taunts and insults of the Soviet leader.