Brilliant Young Booksellers: Douglas Nelson

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Douglas Nelson, owner of Nelson Rare Books in Haddonfield, New Jersey:

How did you get into rare books?

During my final undergraduate year at the University of Delaware, I took a history course on 19th century Britain. Most of the course material was Victorian literature rather than traditional history textbooks. While I was familiar with Dickens and a few other Victorian figures, the course drew my attention to lesser-known authors as well as the literary cultural movements of the time.

I left the course with an appreciation for 19th century British literature, but as I had to attend law school and an academic career was not in my future, literature and physical books of the time were my link to the past, so I decided, with no idea what that really meant, that I would be a book collector.

During law school, and with surprising free time, I started accumulating books, both for personal collection (as I was/still am a collector) and those for sale. I was also very interested in the rare book trade itself. I’ve watched all of the ABAA member interview videos and read the memoirs of Carter, Rosenbach, Newton, and other booksellers. Likewise, before I even tried to sell a book, I read Gaskell, Bowers, Tanselle, etc., on bibliography, acquired essential reference books, and studied as many bookstore catalogs as I could find.

One of the downsides of getting a law degree during the Great Recession was that job prospects in the legal field were zero. One advantage was that I had plenty of time to pursue other projects, namely to start selling books.

When did you open Nelson Rare Books and what do you specialize in?

I opened Nelson Rare Books in 2012, although it has undergone a substantial transformation to its current form. When I opened I kept a very general stock of whatever I spotted, mostly modern firsts from estate sales and libraries. Several years later, I sold, and did not replace, a substantial amount of general and modern stock, so that I could focus on a specialty.

The specialty is the lesser-known British and American literature of the 18th to 19th centuries and the cultural movements of the literary class of the time (e.g., Pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts, Gothic Literature, Gothic Revival, street literature, chapbooks, the multitude of private press works, etc.). Rather than looking for highlights, I focus on the unpopular, obscure and forgotten – the rarer the better – and which allows collectors or institutional buyers to be the first to seek out and discover the material. Along the same lines, I also specialize in running books, friendship scrapbooks, scrapbooks, and manuscripts.

What do you like about the book business?

History, enthusiasm and collegiality. I love being part of and learning about the bookstore tradition that goes back centuries, from Richard de Bury Philobiblon in the 14th century, the exploits of ASW Rosenbach in the 20th century, to the Twitter feed of Garrett Scott in 2022. The bookstore is also full of booksellers, collectors and librarians who share an intense enthusiasm for the book, and it is invigorating to learn, to share, and work with them every day. Last but not least, I love collegiality – nowhere have I been part of a more awesome community.

Describe a typical day:

From Monday to Friday, it’s a juggling number. In addition to being a bookseller, I maintain a specialized legal practice focused on transactional corporate and technology law. Weekdays start early at home so I can bid live at UK auction houses before heading to the law firm, where throughout the day I serve legal clients, while responding to inquiries from potential book buyers/sellers, participating in various book-related committees, and purchasing online through bookseller listings or US auctions. After leaving the office, I’m back home cataloging (sitting on the couch surrounded by reference books is wonderful), photographing new inventory, and shipping orders. Weekends are time with my wife and daughter, and of course looking for books.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) you’ve handled?

Rather than an individual favorite book, I have a favorite category – author-owned books. These are generally books of face value, except for ownership. I had books from the libraries of Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, JM Barrie and George MacDonald, among others. In my personal collection I have a book formerly owned by Effie Gray, a famous, if somewhat notorious, figure in pre-Raphaelite history, who was married to John Ruskin (but the marriage is said to have never been consummated ) before marrying artist John Everett Millais. .

What do you personally collect?

As a collector at heart, I love all the books I buy and sell and would gladly add them to my personal collection. But of course, being a bookseller, I have to sell books, so I made a conscious effort to limit my collection to two areas. I collect first editions of Elizabeth Gaskell (if anyone has a first in book form of North and South, give me a call!). I also collect books belonging to William Morris and his immediate family. While books owned by William Morris and his younger/designer daughter, May Morris, go on sale quite often, it took a while to get books owned by Morris’s wife, Jane, and eldest daughter. , Jenny.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Spending time with my three year old daughter. Whether it’s hitting the park down the street or taking road trips around South Carolina, I love watching her explore and learn. I also spend as much time as possible on the island of Long Beach, New Jersey, where I surf, fish, walk the beach, and relax year-round.

Thoughts on the current and/or future state of the rare book trade?

I think the future for the rare book trade is bright. In 2021, I was fortunate enough to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, which was filled with enthusiastic and diverse booksellers. There is also a thriving rare book community on Twitter, Instagram and Discord, and many new booksellers creatively using social media to reach new audiences. While the world was shut down during the pandemic, it was great (and therapeutic) to connect via social media and monthly Bookseller/Collector Zoom chats with Millennials and Gen Z booksellers around the world.

Upcoming shows or catalogs?

I will be exhibiting at the first Philadelphia Rare Book Fair at Trinity Memorial Church in Philadelphia December 8-10. There is an entry fee for preview night, but Friday and Saturday are free entry for the public. If you’re in town, come say hello!

About Herbert L. Leonard

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