Ed. Note: Lewis Jaffe runs the website bookplatejunkie.blogspot.com, which features images from his and others’ collections of bookplates used by important figures in the theatre profession as well as in cinema and television.
Bookplates: why I collect them
I am retired now and devote a good deal of time in pursuit of and learning about new bookplates for mycollection. A client once asked me why people collect? It wasn’t meant to be a trick question but at the time I was at a loss to explain.
Upon reflection the answer which suits me best is that collecting is therapeutic. Sometimes I feel like an archeologist digging up old artifacts or a detective trying to locate a person. Interestingly enough several entertainers were also notable rare book collectors. Among them were James Cagney, Jean Hersholt, and George Jessel.
Here are some time-tested ways to obtain bookplates
eBay: When I started this adventure about 45 years ago there was no Ebay, so I built a collection without it. Today Ebay is certainly an excellent way to find bookplates from around the world. It takes time and discipline because there is so much clutter and misrepresentation, but it is still worth the effort.
Bookplate Societies: When I first got interested in bookplates I joined both The American (www.bookplate.org) and English (www.bookplatesociety.org) bookplate societies. That gave me an opportunity to meet with and obtain bookplates from other collectors. It still makes good sense to join these organization and exchange bookplates with other collectors.
Antiquarian and used booksellers will go out of their way to help you if you make your interest known to them. It gets harder each year as the number of open shops decreases, and the number of pre-1940’s books on the shelves are decreasing. Nevertheless, it is often productive. Start looking in either the poetry or drama sections as owners of such books seem to have used bookplates more frequently and there is often less turnover of inventory. Ask the bookseller if he keeps a box of detached boards. I have found some excellent 18th century plates in such boxes.
Bookbinders: In most large communities there is at least one hand bookbinder. Check the Yellow Pages, Google, or ask a book dealer. More often than not they, being pack rats, hold onto old bookplates, and in some instances are more than willing to sell you a cigar box full.
Book and Paper Shows: I have always enjoyed going to shows. After a while, dealers will save things for you. It pays to stop at every booth and ask.
Angel of Death letters: I am almost (not quite) embarrassed to admit to the fact that I used to look up the ages of bookplate collectors and wrote to all those over eighty to inquire if they knew of any collections for sale. The point is that it was very productive and I’ve purchased several major collections that way.
For the record, I am 77, so do not bother me until 2018!
Letters to Famous People: I’ve occasionally gotten some remarkable bookplates by writing to celebrities, but I have not had much luck in recent years. Most celebrity mail is filtered by clerks and more often than not you get a signed photo or an auto penned label.
Wylly Folk St. John
For those of you wishing to obtain additional information about this topic, Lew can be reached at Bookplatemaven@hotmail.com