Where billionaires shop to build their libraries
October 8, 2008 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Jay Walker's Library was just profiled by Wired [via], but they failed to mention where many of those books came from. Big players like Maggs, Simon Finch and the Baumans still compose most of the rare book world. (Heritage is gone but Michael Sharp got four of their employees.) They're all excellent places to shop if you're building an Überlibrary, but, if you're Jay Walker, you start with Phillip J. Pirages.

I had the pleasure of working for Phil for about two years starting in 2000. I won't go into detail, but I owed my job to Mr. Walker's insatiable appetite for books. Having heard so much about the Walker library as it was being built, I was thrilled to see the photos in the Wired piece. (I even recognized some of the books.) The rare book world is small, peculiar, and, besides the intrusion of the internet, probably operates in much the same way as it always has. Reputation and specialized knowledge matter. Phil's small firm, located in charmingly rural McMinnville, OR, is known to be as trustworthy and considerate as they get (despite my time there, ha ha) and regularly produces massive, meticulously-researched catalogues so full of charming anectdotes and useful bibliography that they sometimes end up for sale on eBay. Don't let the web 1.0 look of their site fool you (remember this is the rare book world) -- they are one of the big players now. I won't go into business arrangements, but it's well known now that Mr. Walker worked more closely with Phil than any other dealer to build that amazing library. As Phil used to say when he outbid one of the Big Guys, "Not bad for a farmboy from Iowa." I doubt that I'll ever again work for someone as honest and fair as Phil. If you have a chance to visit the New York, California, or Seattle Book Fairs, do yourself a favor and stop by Phil's booth. It should be easy to find, as it usually sparkles. Yeah, most of the stuff is phenomenally expensive, but he'll treat you well regardless of how much money you have, and even the cheap stuff is pretty great. Say hi for me.
posted by nímwunnan (30 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
As an occasional institutional customer, I can testify to the awesomeness of Pirages catalogs. But we buy the most from Quaritch and Jonathan Hill.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:29 PM on October 8, 2008


Oooooh. Now, those are bookshelves.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:41 PM on October 8, 2008


I used to think Dumbledore's office was the coolest library around, but having a Sputnik in your personal library pretty much trumps everything.
posted by jasonhong at 7:51 PM on October 8, 2008


The fact that his book collection was so heavily larded with Franklin Mint editions was funny.

It's kind of like being led into a vault where a Saudi king stores his thousands of wristwatches, and realizing that most of them are $9.99 Armitrons.
posted by jayder at 7:52 PM on October 8, 2008


This is a great post. I'd seen the article but here you've taken it to a whole new level. Thank you very much.

It reminds me a little of Ian Sinclair if you have ever read him . . . If he could stop being "uncanny" for ten pages and write about the rare books business (about which he seems to know more than a little) I know it would be fascinating . . .
posted by matthewstopheles at 8:03 PM on October 8, 2008


This library looks sooooo f*cking awesome that I'm damn near speechless. OMG he's even got a TRS-80 Model 100 (I wanted one of those so bad). If anyone needs me I'll be in my bunk...
posted by MikeMc at 8:08 PM on October 8, 2008


They're all excellent places to shop if you're building an Überlibrary, but, if you're Jay Walker, you start with Phillip J. Pirages.

I had the pleasure of working for Phil for about two years starting in 2000.


Uh-oh. Now you've done it.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:27 PM on October 8, 2008


Where billionaires shop to build their libraries

Mmm. Indeed. My own favorite booksellers--judged by the usefulness/entertainment value of their catalogs--are Simon Finch, Lame Duck Books, Locus Solus, Roger Gaskell, Ulysses, and Biblioctopus. The Lame Duck catalogs are practically a graduate education in themselves, Gaskell's catalogs alone will provide a wonderful lay education in the history of science, and Biblioctopus still brings teh funny like no other bookseller I've encountered.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:35 PM on October 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


OH

MY

GOD.

WANT!


NNG! WANT!
posted by chimaera at 8:35 PM on October 8, 2008


Am I the only one who looks at those pictures and just shakes my head in disgust. That's not a library; that's just a collection of very expensive shit, clumsily thrown together to impress rubes. If you look closely, a good many of the books on the shelves are faced out--just like you find at Barnes & Noble! A Sputnik hanging from the ceiling? Check. A chandelier movie-prop from a not very memorable movie? Check. A bunch of cheesy props and installations that look like they were inspired by Myst? Check. The books themselves might as well be an afterthought.

That place is like a twelve-year old's vision of what the "ultimate library" should be, and it marks Jay Walker out not as a serious student of human culture, but as merely a very rich, very acquisitive fetishist.
posted by Chrischris at 8:40 PM on October 8, 2008 [11 favorites]


It's interesting. For much of the twentieth century, the rare books trade was dominated by large University research libraries and public institutions. In the past 25 or so years, library acquisitions budgets have been cut right back and managers are coming under pressure to sell off 'irrelevant' or 'under-used' rare book holdings. Will we now see a return to the way things were before, where fantastically rich private collectors once more control the market, with the public only able to gawp through the windows, so to speak, via articles like this?
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:44 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


A bunch of cheesy props and installations that look like they were inspired by Myst?

Okay, you're right about it having a lot of new-money tackiness to it, but it's sort of funny in a Disney-movie teenager gets rich way.

And there's NOTHING wrong with Myst-inspired decorating. I could take that.
posted by rokusan at 8:49 PM on October 8, 2008


I'm torn between agreeing with Chrischris and with the other bibliophiles lusting over the space.

I like the balcony space, but its too accessable to be useful as a secluded place, as I would want it to be. The rest of the library is too in-your-face. it may be due to the lighting.

As for the books? frickin' amazing. Though, I'd probably start somewhere else.
posted by Sam.Burdick at 9:04 PM on October 8, 2008


I love that the Saturn V rocket came with an instruction manual.

so... many... jokes...
posted by inparticularity at 9:04 PM on October 8, 2008


That place is like a twelve-year old's vision of what the "ultimate library" should be, and it marks Jay Walker out not as a serious student of human culture, but as merely a very rich, very acquisitive fetishist.

Agree about the decor, and even about many of the books, but still drooling over the bookcases.

Also, I could handle a library balcony.

posted by thomas j wise at 9:18 PM on October 8, 2008


Fantastic post.
posted by saslett at 9:29 PM on October 8, 2008


That place is like a twelve-year old's vision of what the "ultimate library" should be,

Color me "In Touch With My Inner Twelve-Year-Old". With the exception of etched glass that is. Also, I would personally select all of the books (no "books by the foot" thank you) and they wouldn't be sitting open on tables unless I was actually looking at them (with the exception of any really beautiful illuminated manuscripts which everyone who passes through should see).
posted by MikeMc at 10:01 PM on October 8, 2008


Holy crap, I live in this Phil guy's town. I bet a friend of a friend knows him.
posted by mathowie at 12:47 AM on October 9, 2008


As an occasional institutional customer, I can testify to the awesomeness of Pirages catalogs. But we buy the most from Quaritch and Jonathan Hill.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:29 PM on October 8 [+] [!]


Ah! Of course. I've been out of the business for a few years, and I was ashamed at myself for how long it took me to remember some of the big names. There are, of course, many trustworthy and friendly names in the business besides Phil, but it would be another post entirely to sift through the collective awesomeness of the rare book world.

Uh-oh. Now you've done it.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:27 PM on October 8 [+] [!]


Done what? This ain't no self-link.

That place is like a twelve-year old's vision of what the "ultimate library" should be, and it marks Jay Walker out not as a serious student of human culture, but as merely a very rich, very acquisitive fetishist.

Nope, nope, nope. Mr. Walker worked hard on that library. Sure, the interior design is a little too glowy for my tastes, but you can't fault the collection (as long as we're not discussing wreched excess here and just talking about good books). The contact I had with Mr. Walker was reassuring in an unexpected way. It's so easy to think celebrities or rich people got that way from luck or chance, but then you meet one of them and realize, yeah, this guy is smart and tenacious, no wonder he's rich. Over the two years I worked for Phil, Mr. Walker got more and more serious about collecting. He had enough money not to listen to anyone, but instead he did the research, listened to the advice (mostly), and put in a lot of time to make an excellent collection. He probably has one of the most comprehensive private collections of printed bibles, for one. Face-out books? Barnes and Noble didn't invent that, and it's not such a bad idea when the book is an example of some of the best fine-binding in the last 200 years. Someone mentioned that the collection is "larded" with Franklin mint. With a library like that, the choices are gaps in your shelves or at least some book-furniture, but Mr. Walker even thought about that -- he bought nicely-bound, incomplete sets to put on inaccessable shelves or shelves where they'd have a lot of exposure to sunlight. Still decent books, but (relatively) cheap for being an incomplete set, and dealers got to move difficult items. If Mr. Walker had taken the shotgun-full-of-money approach, my job would have been much different.

Holy crap, I live in this Phil guy's town. I bet a friend of a friend knows him.
posted by mathowie at 12:47 AM on October 9 [+] [!]


Ha! Have a Terminator stout at the Hotel Oregon for me! If you know anyone at the post office or the bank, they know Phil. His wife is a much-loved presence at Linfield as well. Keep an eye on the classifieds -- they have a hard time finding and keeping qualified staff in such a small town.
posted by nímwunnan at 3:17 AM on October 9, 2008


Oh yeah:
Biblioctopus still brings teh funny like no other bookseller I've encountered.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:35 PM on October 8 [+] [!]


Indeed! Did you ever see the catalogue they issued as trading cards?!? Frikkin hi-larious. Possibly the geekiest thing I own.
posted by nímwunnan at 3:22 AM on October 9, 2008


So... is it wrong to collect books to read, rather than because they look pretty on the outside? I'm sorry, I don't get it.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 5:01 AM on October 9, 2008


You can do both and not be wrong.
posted by smackfu at 5:52 AM on October 9, 2008


I had the pleasure of working for Phil for about two years

So you can tell me with authority: how do you pronounce Pirages? Like the word peerages? Pi-RAY-jez? This languagehat must know!

As for "I don't get it": who cares? You know, nobody enjoys/"gets" everything in this world. I don't "get" ballet or any form of dance, but I don't go into posts about dance to snark about it. I accept that it's an art as worthwhile as any other, and means a lot to a lot of people; it just doesn't speak to me. You don't "get" the appeal of fine books? Too bad, but don't act like that makes you superior. (Me, I got to know a rare book dealer in New Haven and started buying the occasional Pound and Zukofsky edition for prices that were barely within my budget—Hugh got to know my tastes, and would say "Hey, Steve, I've been holding this one for you"—but then I realized if I continued down that path I'd be spending all my disposable income on books I would have to treat with kid gloves and worry about, so I slapped myself hard and made myself stay out of those places. But if I won a few million bucks, I'd be collecting early 20th-century poetry editions with glee.)
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


So you can tell me with authority: how do you pronounce Pirages? Like the word peerages? Pi-RAY-jez? This languagehat must know!

If you're a telemarketer, you say "Pierogies". Otherwise it's Pi-RAY-jes, rhyming with "courageous."
And oh do I sympathize with the "don't start you'll never stop" feeling when looking at good, rare books.
posted by nímwunnan at 6:26 AM on October 9, 2008


it's Pi-RAY-jes, rhyming with "courageous."

Thanks very much!
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on October 9, 2008


Doesn't Jay Walker spend most of his time these days creating patents for use in the casino industry? Is that what his immense library of human thought has inspired him to do?
posted by any major dude at 9:45 AM on October 9, 2008


Do want. Wealth actually being used for something cool, instead of a bigger yacht than the guy down the block.

Let me second languagehat - one of the most tiresome things at MeFi is the people who feel compelled to drop into threads to announce that they don't personally like something, so therefore it has no value. Fark is right over there folks, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Great post, nímwunnan.
posted by bitmage at 9:57 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I know no one else really cares (or maybe they do, this is MeFi after all) but I'd just like to apologize for all the spelling mistakes in my original post. It was 2 am and I wanted to post this before I got scooped. blar. Glad most of you are enjoying it though.
posted by nímwunnan at 10:19 AM on October 9, 2008


Looking through the Pirages site at books from the 1700s:

The Observer began in 1785 with the 40 issues bound together here containing essays in a light chatty manner on miscellaneous topics (there were eventually 153 numbers of the periodical issued). Certain subjects and personages continue through more than one issue...

has me wondering if anything will survive of our ephemeral age. Will there ever be:

Metafilter began in 1999 with the first 40M postings stored together in this isolinear chip containing essays in a light chatty manner on miscellaneous topics (there were eventually 7Tb of postings). Certain subjects and personages continue through more than one issue...
posted by bitmage at 10:22 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


weird, this is one of the only posts I've ever favorited and flagged.

anyway, even if that library is a library built by a very acquisitive fetishist, it's still awesome, and precisely because of the Myst qualities. That room is my favorite part of every one of my favorite video games. If it's not really that great an actual library, well that sucks. but it's still a pretty bangin' room.
posted by shmegegge at 10:59 AM on October 9, 2008


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