"Rare book dealers need more than 'Fingerspitzengefühl', they need a kind of sixth sense, paired with profound knowledge."
A Conversation with ILAB President Arnoud Gerits
By Barbara van Benthem
Arnoud Gerits has been closely connected with the League for more than a decade. He joined the ILAB Committee in 1998, was editor of the ILAB Newsletter from 2002 to 2006, and became Vice President in 2008. As Secretary of the ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography he supervised the 15th Prize in 2010 and will be responsible for the 16th award in 2014. During the 39th ILAB Congress and 23rd International Antiquarian Book Fair in Bologna the presidents of the affiliated associations elected Arnoud Gerits as the new President of the League - and welcomed him with standing ovations.
One night in Amsterdam
It runs in the family: In 1993 both father and son sat at the conference table of the Presidents Meeting in Los Angeles. Anton Gerits as ILAB President, Arnoud Gerits joined the meeting as delegate of the Dutch Antiquarian Booksellers' Association (NVvA).
"I have grown up in a rare book selling family. Books, reading, and the interest in history and politics were vital for us", says Arnoud Gerits. He studied history and Dutch language and literature at the University of Amsterdam. In the 1970s most professors held their lectures about the Middle Ages. As he has always been a passionate reader with a special interest in history, he knew most books, facts, persons and epochs they were referring to in their lectures - and got bored. He took his degrees and thought about his future career. Then, one evening in Amsterdam, a friend celebrated the opening of his bookshop, and at the opening Arnoud Gerits met the owner of Athenaeum, one of Holland’s largest independent bookstores founded in 1966. The owner urged him to establish his own business. "And suddenly I knew: I wanted to become a bookseller." The next day Arnoud Gerits called his father, who said:
“If you want to work in a bookshop, why don’t you work for me?”
It was said, and it was done. In 1981 Anton Gerits (who himself was a long-time member of the ILAB Committee and ILAB President from 1991 to 1996) had established his own business in Hilversum, after three decades of working as managing director for companies like Nijhoff, Ludwig Rosenthal's Antiquariaat and Elzevier. The well-known specialist had travelled all over the world since the 1950s. He had seen magnificent libraries and had sold splendid collections, had built up many friendships and excellent contacts in Japan, the United States, Russia, and Europe.
"Everything I had to learn I could learn from him. I went to Hilversum, and the first thing my father told me to do was to catalogue his reference library. This was hard work, and it was a time that I will never forget. It’s a great gift to have the best teacher in your own family!"
Arnoud Gerits joined the company in 1983. At that time the shop in Hilversum was only open by appointment. Father and son established a second open bookshop in the centre of Amsterdam. It was located on the ground floor, Arnoud and his wife Irene Schouten-Gerits lived upstairs. Gerits senior moved parts of his stock to Amsterdam. Then, on August, 1st, 1983, they celebrated the opening of the new shop with friends and colleagues. The big step was taken.
"Suddenly, I was a rare book dealer. I have never regretted it!"
The Gerits booksellers were a great team. One day, Anton Gerits wrote in his memoirs, "I proposed that we both put down on paper - not more than one leaf in quarto - how our business would look ten years from now. When we later compared our two pieces of homework, it appeared that we both had the same ideas, expressed in different wording, but with the same ambition for the future. After ten years we would be one company, established in Amsterdam in a prestigious street; and we would have, besides the antiquarian department, a mail order department for new scholarly books." (Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia, pp 346)
In 1986 the new firm was officially established as A. Gerits & Son in Amsterdam, Raadhuisstraat 52, with a beautiful view of the Western Church. In 1995 Anton Gerits handed over the business to Arnoud, who has recently published Catalogue 114 with beautiful books and historical documents on the history of ideas, philosophy and economics. These have been his specialities from the beginning.
You sell what you read
"The history of ideas, economics, law, philosophy, humanities, and political theory: these are the subjects I am interested in as a private person", says Arnoud Gerits. "Since the rare bookseller never closes his shop in his mind, these are also my business interests. When I read a new book for example about Leibniz or Spinoza, I am even more excited to sell the old books by the great philosophers during the business hours. You sell what you read. Once a bookseller, always a bookseller."
It’s a scholarly approach to the rare book business rather than a visual or artistic one. The books sold by A. Gerits & Son are “text” books. The history behind the book, its place in the sciences and in culture, the life and intellectual capacities of the author, his inventions, his explorations – all this is important. Arnoud Gerits does extensive research, before he offers a book. He wants to know everything about the time in which it was printed, about the intellectual development to which it contributed and its special place in the history of mankind.
The company is widely known for its expertise. All the books are carefully described and offered in catalogues, at book fairs, and in the internet. And there is another even more sophisticated approach to bibliophily: It's a tradition that A. Gerits & Son sells whole collections, a speciality that few dealers offer. These collections include both the "great" works as well as the lesser known books and pamphlets. They are formed from the stock, either on special themes, with certain provenances or covering a certain period or an epoch. Each collection is provided with an historical survey to define the contribution that the books have made to the political, scientific, philosophical or economical progress, to see which books and authors are important, and which are missing. The second step is to buy the missing items to complete the collection. So, you don’t get just one book, but a whole collection, a conglomeration of ideas and intellectual progress represented by beautiful books. Exciting work for an antiquarian bookseller.
Many of these collections have found their way into University libraires. The Robert Brecy collection on French popular music, for example, is now housed at the University of Melbourne. Collections on the Paris Commune and the French 1848 Revolution were sold to Japan. Collections on “The Enlightenment Philosophers” and “Imaginary Voyages and Travels” were built from the former library of Michael Bernstein. Boris Souvarine’s library, bought in 1985, included a marvellous collection of Trotskyite publications. The Bruno Monnier collection documented the time of Maria de Médici and the Concini case at the beginning of the 17th century. The Concini couple had a strong influence on French politics, and were eventually murdered. Arnoud and Anton Gerits bought the books in the early 1980s and presented them in a catalogue “French Mind and Society during the Seventeenth Century”. It was Catalogue 15, the first catalogue published under the imprint A. Gerits & Son.
It was in the late 1980s when the Paris International Antiquarian Book Fair was still held at the Conciergerie, where Marie-Antoinette had been imprisoned, before she was executed by guillotine on 16 October 1793. During the French Revolution members of various revolutionary societies wore insignia and as it wasn’t always safe to show to which group you belonged they sometimes wore them not visible. At the Paris Fair, a dealer offered a magnificent collection of those insignia. Arnoud Gerits was excited, but his father was not. He considered the portfolio to be too expensive, and hard to sell. The son disagreed and bought the portfolio, because he believed in it.
"In my opinion the word 'Fingerspitzengefühl' is not appropriate, although it is often used. Rare book dealers need more than just a feeling, they need a kind of sixth sense, paired with profound knowledge. It’s instinct."
At that point, Arnoud Gerits remembers, "I realized that I could do my own business, that I could make my own decisions, that I had this instinct." Some weeks later he sold the collection.
Financing the revolution
The books you look for all your life and never get – these are the interesting ones. Every dealer knows these moments of excitement, anger, and frustration. The greatest book Arnoud Gerits ever missed was a treatise by John Locke, “Epistola de tolerantia” or “A Letter Concerning Toleration” from the year 1689. John Locke had fled from England to the Netherlands in 1683, where he worked on his main treatises. The “Epistola de tolerantia” was translated into English and into Dutch in the same year. The Dutch translation “Een brief aangaande de verdraagzaamheit“ is extremely rare. It was known to his bibliographers Jean and John Yolton, but they had never been able to locate a copy. The only known reference to its existence was an old advertisement, until Arnoud Gerits stood in the queue, before the Amsterdam Antiquarian Book Fair opened.
"While I was waiting for the Fair opening I browsed the catalogue, and – there it was! I was thrilled, and I couldn’t wait any longer. It took hours, until the fair opened! There were only very few customers in front of me, and the dealer who offered the book stood close to the entrance. My chances were excellent. I was determined to give the outmost. I stormed into the room, I reached the stand, I shouted … but the book was sold. It is no exaggeration when I say that I felt physically ill for a couple of days. There it was, 'my book', and it was sold seconds before I could say 'yes'. A week or two later, when I had recovered, I wrote a letter to Jean and John Yolton to tell them that I could prove the existence of the book that neither they nor I had ever seen before. Today Locke’s 'Een brief aangaande de verdraagzaamheit ' in its early Dutch translation is kept in a University library - not far away from my office."
Disappointments are part of the life of a rare book dealer. Although they are not as often told as the moments of success, they are worth remembering: "You learn from your mistakes, not from your success."
Arnoud Gerits publishes five to six catalogues a year, each with a fine selection of rare books and documents representing important authors, epochs or special subjects from the history of ideas. The - in his words - "most fascinating failure" was a catalogue titled “Financing the Revolution”. Money is involved in every kind of revolution, today as well as centuries ago. So why not publishing a catalogue about the financial history of the French Revolution? Arnoud Gerits collected books and pamphlets about paper money, currencies, tax laws, banks and credits, in short: everything concerning money in the 18th century. The mood was optimistic, even enthusiastic, when the catalogue was printed with a preface by Anton Murphy. Finally the catalogue was sent out to the customers. Arnoud Gerits sold … no more than 15 books. "Although 'Financing the Revolution' was a complete financial disaster, I still think it was a brilliant idea."
The international family
In the mid 1990s, when Alain Nicolas was ILAB President, Arnoud Gerits became member of the ILAB Committee. "I enjoyed the work, it was the time when the first ILAB website was set up, and there were many discussions about ILAB, the internet, and the future." However, he felt it was too early to become President of the League, only six years after his father had ended his presidency. Arnoud Gerits left the ILAB Committee, but stayed in touch and became editor of the ILAB Newsletter. Furthermore, he served - and still serves - as Secretary of the ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography.
"Bibliography is our main research tool and the intellectual basis of our profession. A good antiquarian book dealer knows many books by heart and through experience, but there are many more aspects we need to know to describe the works properly, before we offer them to our customers. The ILAB Breslauer Prize honours and, to some extent, finances the enormous background work done by scholars, book historians and bibliographers. That's why the Prize is so important and deserves all our energy."
In 2006 Michael Steinbach succeeded Bob Fleck as President of the League, and when Arnoud Gerits was asked to rejoin the Committee, he could not say "no". "To be ILAB President requires much time and devotion. Michael did a great job, and I felt it was only fair to support and to help my friend." Two years later Adrian Harrington was elected as ILAB President. As Vice President, Arnoud Gerits was destined to be his successor. Finally, during the ILAB Congress in Bologna in 2010, he himself became President. "Fourteen years after my father, with enough distance to his presidency and with twelve long years of my own experience in working for ILAB."
"ILAB's ideals of fostering friendship between people and nations regardless of their race and religion are as important today as they were 60 years ago, when the League was founded. The challenge is: How can we transport the ideas of Menno Hertzberger, Percy H. Muir, André Poursin and all the founding fathers into the modern age? In this respect, all the work for the League is work in progress. The conditions change, the ideals are still the same." For Arnoud Gerits the League is a kind of international family. "It's more than business. It's fraternity. Friendship."
"Today, we are in contact with the whole world every day and every minute, if we want to. On internet platforms, on Facebook, through emails, with iPhones, on Skype. The social media are omnipresent. But do we really talk to each other? In times where we publish our catalogues as pdf files and upload our carefully described books to databases, it's more than essential that we really meet each other from time to time, that we really see the books, feel the leather bindings, the paper and the woodcuts, that we still share a real time experience, a non-virtual encounter with the world of books, with our history. The internet has become an essential part of the rare book business, it is a perfect research tool and a good way to get in contact, to find and to sell books. However, sometimes we need real communication. Our congresses and fairs are the important occasions where this real-time communication takes place, where we see and touch the books, exchange ideas and discuss topics of mutual interest, where we meet the customer and can talk with him face-to-face. However wonderful the virtual world today is, nothing replaces the actual meeting of colleagues and customers and the real touching a book and going over the shelves of a stand.
>>> A. Gerits & Son