…and I’m thinking of things passed. As a book dealer, it sometimes feels like I’m a small island in a wide and slow river. Books get washed ashore, I care for them awhile, sometimes nursing them back to health or discovering some new connection or part played in the undercurrents of history, and after finding them a new home, I set them afloat once more and watch them disappear around the bend.
I’ve been buying occult books since 2002, but I’ve been selling them for just as long. That’s the point. That’s survival. But I’ve been thinking lately of what a marvellous collection I would have if I had ignored the second part of the equation and made a more permanent home on my shelves for them.
All of us, in the end, are just curators – librarians for an unknown future. But the books go on and pass from hand to hand, some taking more care of them than others, but most of them survive even if it’s in a tattered, foxed and water stained way.
The first esoteric book I bought was A. E. Waite’s The Occult Sciences (1891) from a smaller book fair in an underground car park while exhibiting at the ABAA Boston Book Fair.
I had remembered a battered Waite paperback I had during my ‘searching’ teenage years and bought it almost just for the nostalgia. But when I got back, catalogued it and uploaded it to ABE, it sold overnight. “Well that’s interesting…” I thought and looked for another of my grimoires of youth: The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. I found an 1898 first, spine rebound in black leather with gilt gothic titles, and sold that in a couple of weeks. Well that was that and here I am. No turning back now.
I realised quickly it wasn’t always as easy as that of course (‘The first rule of life is the World is not fair’ as my Father so helpfully put it), but I was hooked. It was and still is a fairly untouched subject, historically and bibliographically. New discoveries, associations and points of issue emerge in a steady stream, to be shared or merely stored away for some future bibliographical masterpiece I believe all book dealers claim they will undertake ‘maybe next year’. And my my – what discoveries! Along the way I have been a temporary custodian for some real gems:
Aleister Crowley’s own copy of Konx On Pax, annotated and with the last blank and endpapers covered in his mad plans for a Crowley Restaurant in Paris – Some examples: ‘A. Situation. Obscure ill famed quarter, but not too inaccessible. Narrow dark alley’ ‘D. Furniture. No chairs or tables, but mattresses, armchairs, bolsters… dyed to appear dirty.’ ‘F. Merchandise. Featuring extraordinary concoctions by a.c. both food and drink (Crowley Mixed Grill: Crowley Cup) A. C.s books and pictures…’ ‘H. Attractions. (1) Myself…’
A collection of 20 of his letters to a possible (albeit one of a few) successors, a copy of Mortadello with a long inscription to Dennis Wheatley, a rare vellum bound Volume III of the Holy Books, containing the first printing of The Book of the Law and plenty of others that I wish were on My shelves.
A complete copy of Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (1609) with the famous image of the Alchemist in his Laboratory:
A manuscript of the ritual of the 6=5 grade (The Grade of Mystical Death c.1905) written by A. E. Waite for his post Golden Dawn order The Independent and Rectified Rite:
The first edition of the elusive grimoire La Poule Noire (1820) – all pyramids, talismans and a black, gold egg laying chicken of course:
A copy of Trissmosin’s Aureum Vellus (1598) with contemporary hand-colouring:
Steffi Grant’s wonderful illustration of the Golden Dawn Lamen in The Golden Dawn (Carfax Monograph II 1959):
W. Wynn Westcott’s own copy of Lives of the Adepts in Alchemystical Philosophy (1814) with his signature and label for The Hermetic Library – basically the Golden Dawn’s book collection:
Not to mention inscribed Dion Fortune books, Montague Summers’ own copies of his Witchcraft books, Calmet on Vampires, a huge folio manuscript of Raphael’s Book of Fate, a drop of Fludd and Maier and so on.
I still get a rush of excitement when I find books like this. And it is all about the books and the people and the history and not yet about the money. I hope I never get to the point when my first thought is “fantastic – this book is worth a crap load of money”. I know I have to earn a living, but if I can do it without losing the feeling I got from finding that first little A. E. Waite first edition, I will be a fortunate man.
So here’s to the next great find! My collection will grow ever bigger, just not on my bookcase.