13 Secrets of Rare Book Dealers

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In the digital age, the rare book trade might seem like an antiquated trend from a bygone era, known for its dusty tomes and pedantic old men. But e-books have actually awakened readers to the fact that a printed book is more than just the written text—it’s an historical object itself. Thanks to the internet, information on this esoteric subject is now widely available, and more people than ever are learning about book collecting. Dealers are also handling a wider variety of material, and these fresh perspectives are electrifying a once-sleepy, rarified world. With these developments, the trade has changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 200. Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer based in Brooklyn, shares some secrets and surprises of this quirky corner of book culture with Mental Floss in this list.

1. AN OLD BOOK ISN’T NECESSARILY A RARE BOOK.

A shelf of older books, some with damaged covers
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In book collecting, supply and demand are king. A book becomes “rare” when it’s both hard to find and highly sought. If the supply side or the demand side isn’t extreme, it doesn’t qualify. This means a book from 1850 isn't necessarily “rare” if no one wants it. And no, a book from the 1800s isn’t automatically desirable because it’s “old.” In rare books, the word "old" is relative: Within the 500 years of printed history we handle, a book from 1850 isn't really that old. The only books old enough to be highly sought-after just for their age are those printed in the 1400s, from the earliest years of printed books in the West.

2. IT’S NOT JUST BOOKS.

Yes, our profession is called the rare book trade, but that's because it’s easier to say. In fact, we handle manuscripts, scrolls, etchings, and other prints, archives—even sometimes ventriloquist dummies from itinerant woman preachers. Is there text? Or does the item have a connection to books in some way? That’s good enough for us.

3. YES, DUST JACKETS REALLY ARE THAT IMPORTANT.

A bookseller holding a first edition of The Great Gatsby at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“Completeness” is a key standard of book collecting—the idea is that a book should retain all the parts with which it was historically issued. In modern books, this often means the dust jacket: A first edition’s price can rise or fall exponentially based on the original dust jacket. An extreme example is The Great Gatsby: Without the jacket, a first edition currently runs around $4000-$6000. In a decent, unrestored original dust jacket, the price leaps closer to $100,000.

4. WE LITERALLY COUNT EVERY PAGE OF A BOOK.

This is especially true for books from before about 1800, in what we call the “handpress” period. The earlier in print history you go, the more likely you are to discover missing pages. Objectionable passages are torn from banned books. Stunning engravings are excised to be framed and put on a wall. The blank pages in the front or back of a book are often missing, too: Historically, paper was an expensive commodity, so owners would tear out those blank pages for use. Dealers must go through a book page by page to make sure that everything has remained intact. We even have a specialized method of counting based on how the book was formatted by the printer. And we hate being interrupted in the middle of counting a 500-page book. One of my friends puts a sign on her desk that reads, “Don’t bother me: I’m counting.”

5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO COLLECT.

A stack of bills inside an older book
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The books that make the headlines are the $6 million Shakespeare First Folio or the $150,000 first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But often the most interesting collections—the ones that end up housed at some prestigious institution—are built by people who aren’t buying the most expensive books. In 2015, Duke University acquired the collection of Lisa Baskin, which documents women at work through the past five centuries, to much fanfare. Baskin formed this world-class collection for a fraction of the expense one might expect—because for most of the 40 years she was collecting, she was purchasing books that weren’t popularly sought. Today we say, “an 18th-century woman entomologist who published her own drawings of her scientific observations? Yes please!” But in the 1980s, such works were met with a shrug.

This year my company established a book collecting prize for women aged 30 and under with an eye toward demonstrating that great collections don’t have to be valuable tomes kept behind glass. Our first winner collects romance novels.

6. WE HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT A BOOK’S SMELL.

We’ve all held a beloved old book and smelled the pages, taking in that vanilla-like aroma. It’s cozy. It’s peaceful. It reminds us of rainy days, blankets and tea, secret gardens. And it’s not relevant to most rare books. That particular smell comes from the lignin in cheaply produced paper, a chemical introduced when wood pulp was added to papermaking processes in the 1840s. For most of the history of printed books—over 500 years—a book with a smell means mold, or dirt, or any number of unpleasant materials that have been rubbed into the pages over the years. Smells are a red flag that something is wrong. We do not want our books to smell. Walking into our shop and remarking on the smell is like exclaiming, “Your books are gross!”

7. WE DON’T USE WHITE GLOVES. AND WE’RE NOT SORRY.

A senior specialist for rare books and manuscripts at Christie's holds a copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in 2012
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This is probably the single biggest misconception about rare books. Random strangers yell at me for it all the time. In fact, it was established years ago that gloves weaken your tactile sensitivity. That means you're much more likely to tear a page, or otherwise damage the book (like, heaven forbid, dropping it) while wearing them. Instead, conservationists simply recommend handling them with washed and well-dried hands. This myth has been perpetuated by the exceptions: A very small percentage of materials, like metal bindings and photographic film, do require gloves. But rare book curators from such institutions as the Harvard library system and the British Library [PDF] have made it very clear that white gloves have no place in a rare book room.

8. DIFFICULT CLIENTS DON’T GET OFFERED THE BEST MATERIAL.

Say you’ve acquired the find of a lifetime. You know there are at least three collectors who would jump for the chance to add it to their library. Who gets the first offer? The guy who beats you up about your price and denigrates the material as part of his haggling strategy, or the guy who smiles and asks you how you’ve been before you get to the serious talk? Many collectors think haggling gets them the better deal, but it’s a dangerous game: Become too difficult or stressful to work with, and you will get fewer phone calls from the dealers who find the material you want to buy.

9. THERE IS AN ASSOCIATION OF ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS, WITH BYLAWS AND A CODE OF ETHICS.

Two men at the Park Avenue Armory during the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If you’re a new rare book dealer, one of your most important goals is getting into the ABAA, or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. You must demonstrate a record of professional dealings for at least four years in order to apply. Current members are surveyed and asked whether new applicants pay their bills, accurately describe their material, and run their business ethically. Once you join the ABAA, there are a number of important perks. Besides carrying the seal of approval in the American rare book trade, you are eligible to showcase your inventory at the ABAA-organized book fairs, including the biggest one in the country, at the Armory in New York City. For some dealers, the sales from the New York book fair alone can make up 25 percent to 50 percent of their annual revenue.

10. IT’S NOT JUST OLD WHITE MEN. BUT IT IS PRETTY MUCH ALL WHITE.

In this business, dealers in their 40s are considered the young whippersnappers. But the new generation of younger dealers is making its presence felt, especially in handling material outside the traditional canon of dead white men: LGBTQ material, African Americana, women’s history, pulp publications, punk ephemera [PDF], and more.

Women are making significant inroads as well. While there have always been formidable women at the top of the rare book trade, we’re seeing an increasing number of women running their own businesses or being offered equity in established firms. We also recently established a successful schedule of networking events to provide support, mentoring, and business opportunities for women in the trade.

We still have a major problem with racial diversity, however. The trade is taking steps to attract and train people from underrepresented groups, but we have a long way to go. One of the most important new developments is the Belle da Costa Greene scholarship, named after J.P. Morgan’s brilliant book buyer and librarian, who was African-American. It is awarded annually to a person from an underrepresented or disadvantaged community to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, commonly known as “Bookseller Bootcamp” for dealers.

11. MANY RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ALSO SCHOLARS IN THEIR CHOSEN FIELDS.

A bookseller at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Many of the best rare book dealers specialize in particular subject areas. Because of their endless research with primary source materials, they earn a reputation of expertise in that topic. One famous example is the 20th century rare book dealer Madeleine Stern, who tracked down Louisa May Alcott's pseudonyms in her search for material to sell and discovered that the author of Little Women had for years been writing sensational "blood and thunder" stories—19th century pulp fiction—under a pen name.

12. MOST COMPANIES ARE PRETTY MUCH MOM-AND-POP SHOPS.

Many rare book dealers are one- or two-person operations. Only a small fraction of companies have three or more employees. A company is huge if it has over ten people. On the one hand, this gives the job a decidedly anti-corporate atmosphere: Many of us joke that we are unemployable elsewhere. On the other hand, it also means we do everything needed to run the business, from shipping to website design, on our own. Besides the bootstrapping, it also means living with the risks of a small business. For example, I know of only a handful of rare book firms who offer health insurance or some kind of retirement plan. Frankly, most of us plan to keep dealing until we drop dead mid-sale.

13. RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ONE BIG FAMILY.

This is a small world. We all know each other. The ABAA is made up of perhaps 400 active members across the nation. Many of my best friends are fellow dealers, even if they live across the country. We see each other a few times a year, mostly during book fairs, where we celebrate our regular reunions with lots of alcohol. We know which dealers have chronic money problems, which are most likely to be casually sexist, and whom we can go to in a crisis. We know each other’s strengths, so we’ll often refer people with books to sell to a colleague who specializes in that subject. ABAA book fairs, in many ways, are like Thanksgiving dinner with extended family. We may not all get along, but we all made the same decision: to try making a living in this odd world, risking our livelihood to help save and preserve history.

14 Secrets of Cruise Ship Workers

iStock/Remus Kotsell
iStock/Remus Kotsell

From an outsider’s perspective, working on a cruise ship might seem like a dream job. What could be more glamorous than getting paid to travel the world by sea, without having to pay for housing or food? But as with many “dream” jobs, there are a few significant downsides to consider before you fill out an application. We spoke to a few cruise ship employees about what it’s like to live and work on a floating hotel.

1. Americans are the worst cruise workers.

On most large cruise liners, the majority of staff and crew are not American. “On any given contract, you’re working with about 64 nationalities,” says Kat, who spent three years working for a major cruise line. There are a number of possible drivers behind this statistic, but one is that cruise ship employees work really long hours and almost never get a day off, which isn’t particularly appealing to Americans used to a 40-hour workweek and relaxing on weekends. “On my worst contract, I was working close to 300 hours a month,” Kat says. “Yeah, you might be in beautiful places, but you’re so tired sometimes you don’t even want to go out and explore. A lot of times they won’t even hire Americans because the rate of people quitting is so high.”

Americans are also more expensive to employ, even if they do the same work as their counterparts from developing countries. Sam, who worked on Princess Cruises for two years, says her monthly salary of $1100 was higher than that of her Filipino boss. According to Sam, the official reason the ship gave was that the dollar is worth more to people from developing countries than it is to Americans.

2. Cruise ship workers are trained for pirate attacks.

It’s rare for pirates to take on a massive cruise ship, but it can happen, and if it does, the crew is prepared. Nolan, who worked for both Princess Cruises and Oceania Cruises, says he was trained to get all guests away from windows and spray the intruders with giant water cannons.

“Our ship can totally outrun their little dinghies,” he says. “We could spray them with water and they’d be helpless.” Other ships may be equipped with Long Range Acoustic Devices that emit loud, painful noises to deter attacks. That’s how a luxury cruise liner escaped a pirate attack off the coast of Africa in 2005.

3. Want to lose weight? Work on a cruise liner.

While passengers are feasting on steak and scrumptious seafood, the staff and crew aren’t so lucky. “Imagine eating at your high-school cafeteria three meals a day, seven days a week for a year,” writes one former cruise ship worker on Reddit. Kat recalls strange offerings like goat foot stew. The unappetizing food, combined with the many hours spent running the length of the ship, often mean crew members lose a significant amount of weight during their time at sea. “I would lose about 10 to 12 pounds per contract,” Kat says.

Gavin, who worked as a waiter for a major cruise line, said the crew would occasionally get treated to whatever leftovers remained from the passenger buffet, but “it would disappear so fast.”

4. Crew members sometimes mess with passengers.

Life at sea can get a bit monotonous. “It got mundane really fast,” writes one former worker on Reddit. “It was basically the same comedy of errors each day of the week, with a different ‘cast’ of passengers each week.”

Some crew members shake things up by getting a rise out of passengers in the form of good old practical jokes. According to another former crew member, “a favorite was while in a passenger area say to another crew member, loud enough to be heard by passengers, ‘Meet you in the bowling alley tonight!’” Of course, there wasn’t actually a bowling alley on board. “Then we'd wait for the comment cards to come in: ‘Why do crew get a bowling alley when we don't?’”

5. … and chance are the workers might be drunk.

When they’re not working, employees are probably drinking and partying. “We partied our asses off,” Gavin says. “We joked about how it makes a frat house look like a monastery.” The staff get their own designated watering holes on board, referred to as the crew bars, where the drinks are dirt cheap. “At the passenger bars they were charging like $15 for a drink and we’d go down into the crew bar and you could get a beer or mixed drinks for $1.25,” Sam says.

And what happens when you give copious amounts of cheap alcohol to people who are cooped up together for months at a time? “It seems like a cliche, but everyone was hooking up with each other,” Sam says. “In a lot of the crew areas there were these huge posters about STD prevention.”

The crew is regularly threatened with the possibility of random breathalyzer tests (and drug testing), but even this isn’t always enforced. “There was a strict limit on our ship of no more than .04 blood alcohol content at any time,” Gavin says, “but as long as you didn’t make a fool of yourself, you wouldn’t get randomly breathalyzed, so people would break that rule all the time.”

6. For the crew, hooking up with guests on the cruise is strictly forbidden.

So you spotted a cute crew member on your ship and are thinking of chatting them up? Good luck with that. Having sexual relations with a guest is one of the fastest ways for a crew member to get fired. This is mainly to protect the cruise line from reputation-damaging accusations of abuse. Ship security keeps a close eye on crew members day and night. That doesn’t mean hookups never happen, but if a crew member is caught in the act with a guest, they’re kicked off the ship at the next port.

7. Crew passengers are almost always being watched.

“It is safe to assume if you are outside of your cabin you are probably on camera,” Gavin says. “In the event of any kind of emergency, they could pull security footage at any time.”

8. Passengers have a lot of power over how much the crew gets paid.

At the end of a journey, you might be asked to rate your experience and share any praise or complaints on a comment card. These reviews are taken very seriously and often translate directly into salaries and bonuses for workers. “For most people, their salaries are quite low and they rely on those bonuses,” Kat says. So if you leave a bad review and mention someone by name, you can be sure they’ll feel the impact on their paycheck.

“The very best thing you can do for a crew member is to write a glowing review, mentioning them specifically on your comment card,” says a former cruise worker on Reddit. “Their superior’s superiors take note of that.”

9. Some cruise workers have double lives.

“You get a lot of married people that have their own separate lives on the cruise ship,” Kat says. “I’ve worked with couples that have wives at home and a whole different relationship while they’re on the cruise ship. It’s kind of like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.”

Gavin says one of his fellow employees lived as an out-of-the-closet gay man while on board, but was still closeted on land.

10. They have no idea what’s going on in the world.

“You stop following news and sports and pop culture,” Gavin says. “You’re really kind of isolated out there.” It can be difficult (and expensive) to find an internet connection while at sea, so many ship workers completely lose track of current events while on contract.

11. They speak in code.

Crew members have shorthand codes for everything from fires to medical emergencies, which they can announce over the loudspeaker without alarming passengers.

Code Adam: a child is missing
Code Alpha: there’s a medical emergency
Code Oscar: man overboard
Code Bravo: fire on the ship

12. The cruise ship has many mafias.

But not the kind that will make you an offer you can’t refuse. According to Sam, the crew members on her ship were split into “mafias” based on their country of origin, and each mafia dealt in specific goods. For example, the Indian mafia was in charge of getting good food for the crew parties, she says. Because Sam worked in the youth center, she was tasked with providing art supplies for crew costume parties. “That’s just one of the economies of the ship,” Sam says. “Everyone is always trying to figure out what they can get from another person.”

One former cruise ship worker says the Filipino mafia was known for getting good booze at all hours. “If you wanted anything after hours, they would get it for you! The crew bar would close around 1 or 2. If you wanted to keep drinking, but were out of booze, you would just go to the Filipino mafia and get what you needed. You paid a huge markup obviously, but it was still pretty cool!”

13. There’s a morgue on board.

Roughly 200 people die on cruise ships every year, and cruise lines need some place to store the bodies safely until they get back to shore. As a result, many ships have small morgues on board that can hold five or six bodies. “We definitely had a morgue on board,” one former ship employee told me. “Because the line was for older demographics, we had people die on the ship pretty regularly.”

14. They will leave you behind.

If you leave the ship for an on-land excursion, make sure you get back before departure time. Cruise lines pay massive fines if they overstay their port time, so chances are high the ship will leave without you if you’re running behind. “You’re on your own,” Kat says. “They won’t wait.”

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Know About Sephora

iStock/RiverNorthPhotography
iStock/RiverNorthPhotography

It’s the store that’s all about that face … and nails, and skin. Makeup mecca Sephora was first born as a perfumery in 1969. French business owner Dominique Mandonnaud wanted to remove fragrances from behind the counter and allow customers to touch, smell, and spritz on the scents. Three-plus decades later, the cosmetics juggernaut—which is currently in the news for shutting down its stores for an hour today (June 5) to host diversity and inclusivity workshops for all of its 16,000 employees—employs the same client-first philosophy. (Did you know you could get a free 15-minute makeup service at any location?) Try on these other facts.

1. BEAUTY IS (SORT OF) IN THE NAME.

The official line is that Sephora originates from the Greek word sephos (which the company claims means "beauty") and the name Zipporah—she was Moses’ exceptionally pretty wife in the Book of Exodus. Not everyone buys this explanation, however, noting that "sephos" is nothing like the ancient Greek word for "beauty" or "beautiful."

2. IT'S A TOURIST DESTINATION.

The exterior of Sephora's Paris flagship
iStock/serts

Approximately 6 million cosmetics-seekers stroll through the company’s Parisian flagship store on the Champs-Élysées every year. That’s almost as many annual visitors as the Eiffel Tower receives.

3. CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT A PRODUCT? THAT'S COOL!

Stores will take back makeup—even opened products!—within 60 days of purchase. Employees admit it’s often heartbreaking for them to have to trash barely-used makeup.

4. SHOPPERS CAN SCORE TONS OF PERKS …

Along with complimentary mini makeovers, stores offer a 45-minute session when customers spend $50, and a 90-minute consultation (it includes a makeover and personal shopping session) when they shell out $125. The company’s (free) Beauty Insider program also has its benefits. Signing up means you can attend any beauty class gratis and each dollar you spend nets you a point that you can use towards fun gifts. (In some cases, they’ll even let you go into a negative points balance to score the product.)

The company also tracks your purchases to give you recommendations for other products. (Bridget Dolan, VP of Interactive Media, told Forbes that 80 percent of their transactions “run through our loyalty program.”)  Spending $350 a year catapults you to VIB (Very Important Beauty Insider) status and gains you access to private shopping events and first dibs on new products. Shell out $1,000 annually and you get Rouge Status—that means free two-day shipping on all orders, unlimited in-store makeovers, and invites to chic store events. At one, VIBs got the chance to meet Jennifer Aniston!

5. … AND MORE SAMPLES THAN THEY KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH.

Sephora employees are told that customers shouldn’t leave without new products to try. That means you can get a trial size of just about every product they carry. (Most makeup products can be tested in-store and they’ll pour any liquid product, such as a night cream or fragrance, into a sample-size vial.) The general rule, say employees, is that customers are entitled to three samples each trip. Shopping online? Each purchase comes with a choice of three freebies. And while the store rarely has sales, you can score big at the site’s Beauty Deals section.

6. GETTING A SPECIFIC PRODUCT RECOMMENDATION CAN BE TRICKY.

Employees aren’t allowed to refer shoppers to particular brands. So instead of asking for their favorite lip shade, it’s smarter to ask which lip products perform the best. (Translation: What are other shoppers buying and not returning?)

7. NEED THE PERFECT FOUNDATION? THEY HAVE AN APP FOR THAT.

Okay, well, it’s a device. The handheld Color IQ scans the surface of your skin and then finds the scientifically precise foundation—there are 1,500 options—for your visage. To create the library, the Pantone Color Institute researched and mapped out 110 different skin tones.  

8. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

Women shop for makeup at Sephora
iStock/wdstock

Each store is divided into three distinct “worlds”: fragrance, skincare and color. In a 2008 interview with Jezebel, one employee spilled on the lingo. The sales floor is known as the “stage” (which makes everything else “backstage”), employees are called “cast members,” and managers are dubbed “directors.” As for the required all-black outfits, they’re not uniforms, they’re “costumes.”

9. EMPLOYEES REALLY ARE BEAUTY EXPERTS …

Some cast members undergo a month of intensive, all-day training at the company’s beauty school, Science of Sephora. There, according to the company’s website, they learn about “skin physiology, the history of makeup, application techniques, the science of creating fragrances, and most importantly, how to interact with Sephora’s diverse clientele.”

10. … AND THEIR MEDICINE CABINETS ARE STOCKED.

A woman stands in front of a makeup display in Sephora
iStock/arinahabich

Employees have said working at Sephora means constantly receiving new products from companies to try out. A particularly good sales day can also net a salesperson a “gratis ticket” from their manager. Plus, there’s the 20 percent employee discount that jumps up to 30 percent during the holiday season.

11. LOOKING GOOD IS A REQUIREMENT.

Part of the employee handbook: thou shall embrace eyeliner. Cast members are told to wear a certain amount of makeup while working.

12. THEY'RE WARY OF RESALE.

One cast member says they limit people from buying more than six identical items (unless they offer a good reason, such as bridal party gifts). Explains the employee, “This is to discourage people reselling our products at their own establishments.”

13. UNPOPULAR PRODUCTS USUALLY GET THE BOOT.

Stores keep lists of the products that get returned most often, and the products that don’t work are phased out over time. While it's hard to nail down an official list of frequently-returned goods, individual employees will occasionally open up about the company's most loathed and/or most misunderstood makeup.

14. SEPHORA'S APPEAL IS WIDE.

Susan Sontag at an event in Weimar, Germany in 2002
Susan Sontag
JENS-ULRICH KOCH/AFP/Getty Images

In 2014, the L.A. Review of Books dug through the contents of a Power Mac G4 once owned by Susan Sontag and discovered the famed author was on Sephora’s Beauty Insider mailing list.

A version of this article first ran in 2015. It was updated in 2019.

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