The book-lover’s gift of a lifetime: rare books

Dan Whitmore looks through a bookshelf in the Whitmore Rare Books showroom in Pasadena.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)

Steps from the crowds of holiday shoppers streaming into Forever 21 and the Apple Store in Pasadena, in a second-floor walk-up, a trove of unique offerings waits for book lovers with very special gift lists.

At Whitmore Rare Books, which specializes in literary first editions and antiquarian books, Dan Whitmore explained that dealers like him “see a real uptick in activity starting in November, December.” Collectible books, which are a tangible and singular alternative to our digital obsessions, can be purchased for $150 and up — quite a bit up.

Whitmore gingerly turned the pages of a Latin translation of Herodotus printed in 1494, just 46 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press. He lingered on a page framed by an intricate woodcut border, pilasters and vines unspooling in white relief on an inky black background. The book is unequivocally noble, a piece of art.


A rare book provides an answer to the familiar quandary: What do you get someone who’s already got everything?

Woodcuts inside "Historiae. Herodoti Halicarnasei libri novem." by Herodotus, currently being sold by Whitmore Rare Books for $25,000.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times )

“It’s something someone probably doesn’t have,” Whitmore said. “When you’re thinking: Do they have a pen? Yeah, they’ve got a pen.” A 1494 Herodotus, on the other hand: unlikely.

That particular volume costs $25,000; not exactly within the casual buyer’s budget. A first American edition of Charles Dickens’ satire “Hard Times,” printed in 1854, on the other hand — bearing a charming Christmas inscription from a previous owner — costs $375, more within range for a special gift.

Caravan Book Store in downtown Los Angles has a first edition of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winner “The Blind Assassin” for sale — a steal at $75 — and at Mystery Pier Books in West Hollywood a flawless first edition of the Roald Dahl classic “Danny the Champion of the World” costs $300, while a signed first edition of Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays” can be purchased for $350.

Miranda Garno Nesler, Whitmore’s colleague and a former professor of 16th century literature, pointed to an illustrated copy of Dante’s “Paradise Lost” from 1900 bound in cloth and housed in its original publisher’s box as an exceptional, big-ticket item for novice collectors at $500. “When you open the box,” she explained, “it looks like it was made yesterday.” Despite being more than a century old, the fabric is impeccable; as Whitmore turned it over in his hands, the gilded edges gleam.


Dan Whitmore holds up "The Vision; or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of Dante Alighieri" illustrated by Gustave Dore.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times )

The price of rare books ranges widely depending on factors such as dust jackets, inscriptions, scarcity and condition. Books need protection against sunlight, moisture, pests and pressure on their bindings.

Although some collectors treat rare books like art objects — seldom handled and displayed behind glass — others believe that books, no matter how precious, are meant to be read. “There’s no wrong answer. It’s very personal, just as books are personal,” Nesler said.

The best gifts, of course, are chosen with care, thoughtfulness and a particular individual in mind. “It’s not just about giving this book that’s part of a literary cannon or a historical moment, it’s also connecting with now and with who this person is,” Nesler said. “A book is something that says, ‘I see different parts of who you are.’ ”

She recently decided to buy a rare book as a gift for her partner, a craft cocktail specialist at Pasadena’s White Horse Lounge. “What type of book might be interesting to him? For somebody who’s not a collector I don’t necessarily want to go and buy a $12,000 book,” she said. Particularly in this case, when it might come into contact with a spilled Negroni. “He wants to actually use it in the bar. He wants to handle it.”

Nesler settled on a volume called, simply, “Drinks.” “It’s made in a flexible binding and in this shape so that you can fit it into a waistcoat, because people would have been wearing waistcoats behind the bar in 1915.”

It was an interesting choice: The text is available online, but the physical book, with its soft brown leather cover, is a different experience entirely. “He wouldn’t have known that it was shaped this way. The first thing he did was slip it inside his jacket pocket,” she said, smiling. “When he picks it up and touches it, he’s connected to something and to people who did this before him.”

Books on display at Whitmore Rare Books.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times )

At Caravan Book Store, owner Leonard Bernstein notes that gift givers are often on the hunt for “things that they remember from their childhood,” rare children’s books that can be read aloud to a younger generation before bed. Presents for adults run the gamut. “The first question I ask is: What is your friend interested in?” he said. Answers can be surprising. “Sometimes they’ll be interested in the early history of physics.”

How might you shop for the book lover in your life? Take John Steinbeck as an example: The classic American novelist is beloved and collectible. A top quality first-edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” might cost $10,000 or more, yet later editions and even other, less perfect first editions are much more affordable. “Look for a copy of a book with no dust jacket,” Whitmore suggests. “You could find a first edition of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with no dust jacket probably in that $300-$500 price range.”

He doesn’t have that book in stock at Whitmore Rare Books, a quiet showroom lined with glass bookcases, footsteps muffled by a Persian rug. What can be found are literary rarities and a few pop culture treasures: Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” signed by the film’s cast ($15,000) and a first edition of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” ($3,500). One of the prettiest volumes is a signed first edition of “The Little Prince” ($8,500). The dust jacket is faded and fragile, but inside the color illustrations are still rich.

These books, Nesler said, “have lived long before we were here, and the beautiful thing is they probably will live long after us. Whoever gets them or gives them also gets to be a part of that.”

Whitmore Rare Books associate Miranda Garno Nesler, left, and owner Dan B. Whitmore.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times )