PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire booklovers have two opportunities to hear from rare book specialist Kenneth Gloss this week.
The owner of the 200-year-old Brattle Book Shop
in Boston and longtime contributor to WGBH-TV's "Antiques Roadshow" will be speaking via Zoom to audiences at the Berkshire Athenaeum and the Milne Public Library in Williamstown.
Gloss is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, the New England Antiquarian Booksellers of America, the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the Committee for the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair and the Boston Society. He also is a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society as well as serving on the Board of Overseers of the USS Constitution Museum. He's been appraising books and documents on the "Antiques Roadshow" for 20 years.
He will talk speak about some of his favorite finds and describe the joys of the "hunt," as well as explain what makes a book go up in value. He will share some anecdotes as well as guidelines for what to look for when starting a collection. There will also be a question-and-answer session before the conclusion of his talks. Participants may get a free verbal appraisals of books they have on hand or will do so at his shop in Boston at a later scheduled date.
The Berkshire Athenaeum talk is tonight, Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m. Register here.
The Milne Library talk is Thursday, Dec. 2, at 6 p.m. Register here.
We asked Gloss some questions about his career, books and being on "Antiques Roadshow," and found out he's done a little side business in spiffing up people's Zoom backgrounds (when you're on national news, you want to look well read). His answers, by email, can be read below:
Question: Bookselling is a family business for you but was there a time when you considered doing something else?
Answer: I was destined to work with books. My parents told me that "book" was the very first word I spoke. I worked in my father's store since childhood and ultimately chose to go into the book business rather than pursue a doctorate in chemistry. I became sole proprietor upon my father's death in 1985. I found that books were in my blood and that I would never be really happy if I abandoned the business.
Q: Brattle Book Shop is a well-known destination in Boston. How have you been able to survive while other bookshops have gone under, especially during the pandemic?
A: The Brattle Book Shop is our property; we own the building, so that is one major benefit in getting us through the pandemic. Also, a reserve fund, which we've always had in place to address an emergency, helped keep us afloat during the darkest period, when were in lockdown. Still, it hasn't been easy. We've had to be resourceful; during the pandemic, we started a service where we'd design Zoom backgrounds for professionals doing TV and online interviews who wanted to project a specific image. They'd describe the kinds of books they'd like in the background, and we'd select and supply them and construct an appropriate design. Another factor that has kept us solvent is the care we've taken to preserve the health of our staff and customers. We've been vigilant — and lucky.
Q: Do you think there's a different type of customer who haunts used bookstores instead of buying new books? Are there collectors that focus more on the physical book — cover, binding, endpapers, age — rather than the author? How important is the book's physical condition compared to the topic?
A: There's a distinct difference between customers who come in to buy used or rare books and those who want to browse the latest releases of a store that offers new books. The former customer is often in search of "that one gem"— something he or she might have been seeking for years, and they likely have other interests that go beyond "reading copies" of books.
Serious collectors and bibliophiles look for special editions and have such interests as first editions, illustrations, bindings, sets, maps, bound periodicals, decorated covers, endpapers, and the history of the book. In almost all cases, condition is very important. Casual book buyers are usually content with a paperback current bestseller or other new book that suites their taste and are not necessarily concerned about the book's appearance.
We attract book buyers of all types and can often provide recent titles at a fraction of what they cost at new book stores.
Q: Was there a particular volume you encountered that really cemented a love of antiquarian books?
A: There is no particular volume that pops in my mind. It's always been the new additions. We're forever acquiring new, fascinating books, and for me it's the excitement of what's just arrived. There are always surprises.
Q: What book do you personally own that's a favorite?
A: It's one that has great sentimental value — a copy of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas." It's not a particularly rare copy of the book, but it's one I've had for years. Every Christmas Eve I read it to my daughters, whether in-person or remotely. And now I'm reading it to my grandson. A book doesn't have to be rare to be special.
Q: Between the bookshop and your time on "Antiques Roadshow," you must have appraised thousands of tomes. What was the most surprising book someone brought in? What was the most disappointing appraisal for the owner?
A: What comes to mind is a first-edition copy of "The Great Gadsby." It was in poor condition, and on the surface you'd think it was not a valuable book. But it turns out that Fitzgerald had inscribed it to T. S. Eliot, who had completely annotated it! In contrast, on another occasion, someone who was convinced that she had a very early printing of the Declaration of Independence contacted us for an appraisal. On the basis of her description of the piece, I discouraged her from coming in — she was traveling from a good distance — but she persisted. When she arrived, I inspected the document. At a glance, it was clearly a modern facsimile, but the printed copyright date of 1976, which had escaped her notice, confirmed what I already knew. Needless to say, the owner was disappointed.
Q: Speaking of "Antiques Roadshow," how did you get involved in the program? What have you enjoyed (or not enjoyed!) most about it?
A: The "Antiques Roadshow" is produced locally by WGBH-TV, a station I've long supported, and where I've made some professional acquaintances. It has been a great pleasure doing appraisals for the show, for several reasons. Traveling to parts of the country I likely would never visit has been a great enjoyment — getting to see the towns, meeting locals, examining their antiques — all educational and great fun. Maybe the best part is getting together with the many experts, each with his/her area of expertise, from throughout the U.S. The social aspects of the "Antiques Roadshow" are probably the greatest source of pleasure for me.
Q: You are doing virtual talks for our local libraries here. How much have platforms like Zoom changed the way you appraise or give lectures and programs?
A: Zoom works, and in some ways the virtual presentations are even better than the in-person ones. For example, we've had participants from as far away as South Africa. That wouldn't happen at an in-person event. Appraisals are a bit different, and because of the format, I can't do as many as I typically do in person, but I always encourage participants to contact me after the event if there isn't sufficient time to appraise their material during the event. But whether on-site or virtually, the presentations are always a pleasure, and their popularity is underscored by the extensive local media coverage, which continues.
Q: The pandemic seems to have inspired a lot of people to return to or take up new hobbies, like bread making and raising chickens. What got you through the pandemic?
A: During lockdown, I continued to come into the shop, even though there were no customers. I'd answer the phones and would take orders — some people order books by phone and remotely from devices. There was still work to be done. And when I wasn't at the shop, my wife and I would take long walks. And there were always a lot of books to read! I had no problem keeping active during the darkest period of the pandemic. It's wonderful to see the store again filled with customers (albeit masked) as we continue to make progress in defeating this pandemic.