Fairfield Now - Summer 2009
Bill Schaberg '66 deals in rare books, from Nietzsche, to Descartes, to Plath
A book's condition is the greatest determinant in deciding its value, says rare book dealer Bill Schaberg '66.
By Nina M. Riccio, M.A.'09
Anyone who's ever read a Dickens novel probably has an idea of what a purveyor of antiquarian books should look like - old and stooped, spectacles perched, mumbling among towering stacks of dusty tomes.
So meeting Bill Schaberg '66 might be a bit of a surprise. He's an antiquarian bookseller, the owner of Athena Rare Books in Fairfield, yet his office is not in some back alley in London but in a second floor loft with a striking view of the marshlands. No towering stacks of books, either: his collection of 200 rare books are each displayed spine-out in a series of barrister's bookcases, all in a beautifully appointed, temperature and humidity-controlled library. And while he might rightly be called a bit eccentric, he's tall and wiry and eager to talk about the collection he's been building since 1984.
One of Schaberg's earliest acquisitions was Friedrich Nietzsche's Götzen-Dämmerung (1889), a fitting first for the bookseller who would come to specialize in the history of ideas.
"People ask me about different types of books all the time," he said. "And I tell them I know nothing about bird books, or gardening books, or children's books. My specialty is philosophy, history, and religion."
Dealers of rare books are an eccentric bunch of people, he admitted. "They all seem to march to a different drummer. I guess you would call them free spirits." And each of these free spirits tends to carve out an area of specialty.
His current catalog lists a 1915 poetry magazine ("an almost perfect copy of an incredibly delicate piece") containing T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," for $4,000. A first edition of Sigmund Freud's Totem und Tabu, published in 1913, goes for $650, and a volume of Henry David Thoreau's letters "with some wear to top and bottom of spine" is listed at $850. His oldest book is by Aristotle and dated 1511, though the place of publication is not clear, and he owns copy of René Descartes' Discours ("I think therefore I am") from 1637 - one of the first really important books to be published in the vernacular rather than Latin.
An interest in the history of ideas is a logical one for Schaberg, who majored in history but had four years of philosophy while at Fairfield, thanks to the rigorous core curriculum of the period. Though Schaberg had studied at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield before transferring to Fairfield, he didn't "catch fire" with philosophy until he was in the Rev. William Egan, S.J.'s class. As for history, he considers himself lucky to have had Professor Dan Buczek. "He was brilliant. One of the best teachers I've ever had," recalled Schaberg.
After graduation and a stint in the military, Schaberg went to work for his father's blueprint company, eventually becoming its president. When the company was sold, he joined the new owners to do corporate development and educational programming. But reading - and books - has always been his passion, and in the mid-1990s he began selling the rare books he had been collecting.
"You buy a few clunkers because they're cheap," he says of his early days as a collector. "Then your standards go up and you end up with two copies of something, so you sell off the worst one."
Today, most of his buying occurs at antiquarian book fairs or at auction; most of his sales take place through the Internet, and Yale University's renowned Beineke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is among his clients. It's a gentlemanly profession, he said, and he often sends a book out to a customer with the promise that, if they decide not to buy it, they can simply return it a week later.
Eight years after graduation, Schaberg found himself back on campus, taking a philosophy class with Dr. King Dykeman. The two became fast friends; now, they often work book shows together.
"My job is to man the booth so Bill can roam around and schmooze," said Dr. Dykeman, a Fairfield philosophy professor since 1967, noting that Schaberg spends the better part of each show working the room, talking to dealers, and answering questions.
"Bill is something of a Nietzsche nut. He's read everything," said Dr. Dykeman. "He came to a conference with me years ago and bought a first edition of Nietzsche, and then he began learning about his publication history." Nietzsche had three publishers, a complication that makes setting the value of the book difficult, noted Dr. Dykeman. But Schaberg's interest in the philosopher eventually grew into a bibliography that was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995 and has since been translated into German. "That book has become the industry standard for judging various editions and their rareness," said Dr. Dykeman.
As in real estate, there are three things to look for when buying a rare book: "Condition, condition, condition," Schaberg cautioned. An original vellum or leather binding, original end papers, and pages that are intact affect the pricing of the book tremendously.
One of Schaberg's prized acquisitions is Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species (1859), a book he lists for $120,000. "It should be $200,000, but the end papers were replaced," he noted. He does a lot of investigating before buying to be sure the provenance of the book is accurate, and he's justifiably proud of his catalog, which he publishes annually. It is rich in descriptions of what makes each book special and important.
"I'm madly in love with my inventory," Schaberg said. "I'd love to start collecting Jane Austen, but my wife would kill me because I'd never part with them." His wife, Sara Jaeger, is a wholesale florist who doesn't take part in his business but often accompanies him to book shows.
Along with selling, Schaberg is hard at work on his next project: a book he's putting together on the writing and publication of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Stay tuned.