An Old Man with his Old Books

- by Bruce E. McKinney


Bruce McKinney

My interest in old books is now well into my seventh decade. To a kid in the 1950’s old books were accessible mysteries.  I already had Howes’ USiana and was bumping into its limitations, just 10,500 titles and its narrow focus:  Americana in book form.  Pamphlets, broadsides and ephemera were around but very little of it made its way into Howes. Between them there were 96 references.  In book barns and on random shelves you could see fiction was the bigger category.  Americana was more like a cottage industry.  I learned early I knew more than most sellers and soon began to conceal the Howes’ I carried with me everywhere, because information was valuable when buying.


Even just focusing on Americana, there were enough local opportunities to bike to nearby towns to ask at antique shops if they had anything new.  Often there wasn’t much fresh but occasionally there were cleanouts because someone had to clean up the assorted debris from completed lives.  A few dealers provided that service for the bereaved.  Their pickups parked nearby meant some townsman’s property was going to sell.  In that way I learned old books were one criteria for judging the quality of lived life. 


If they left some interesting things, it suggested perception, style and intelligence.  Such judgments were quickly reduced to “she had a good eye” or “who appreciated what she had.” On such comments reputations lived on after the casket was buried on Plains Road. 

Opinions and information mattered around our house because my mother was a weekly newspaper editor and often wrote about lives completed.  In small town papers of that era they were equal parts front page, personals, classifieds, and obituaries.  Our town had about 2,500 residents and everyone had knowledge.  You could live 70 years, raise a fine family, pay all yours bills and have saved neighbor Mrs. Brown when her house was on fire.  But still be remembered for drunk driving.  Editors edited out, emphasized or muted details because, country life was more complex than Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Around the dinner table I learned that words matter:


Yes, “she had a drinking problem but given what she went through, who wouldn’t?”  That woman’s life story in print was the final verdict and my Mom was a soft hearted judge.  Her admonition:  judge not, that ye be not judged.


By 12, I was living through the very definition of extenuating circumstances.  Print was black and white and life was shades of grey.


And money mattered too.  My mother believed New Paltz in Ulster County was only a way station to a big life.  That’s where we were living:  on a way station.  Early on she felt she lost her best chance to live an upscale life when she became pregnant without benefit of clergy.  With her gathering brood she settled in genteel poverty.  Her first child Suzie died when she was 3.  And her third almost died in his first.  That was me.  My neck was broken in the crib.  It’s almost always fatal.  Occasionally, when the second vertebrae is broken, it hooks behind the first and third. In those few cases the victim lives.  Those who didn’t were called crib deaths.  Before I could speak I cried and cried.  By 2 my head had a cant and our doctor told my mother I would never play rough sports.  Life would be touch and go.


Early on, while I became interested in old books, our school and town libraries had book fairs too.  The printed word had stature.  In my teens, old books became my second business.  Mowing lawns were more predictable.


When I was 18 I sold a set of Bigelow’s American Medical Botany to Goodspeed’s in Boston for $325.  I bought it for $3.25 at auction when I was 11.  That money was converted into half payment for a 1956 Austin Healey.


Since then my wife Jenny and I have built businesses and in 1990 started to down shift.  Remembering the early pleasure of collecting I returned to it.  Bill Reese helped to frame my ambitions.  I would become the builder, he the architect.


In 2002 we started Americana Exchange, the predessor to today's Rare Book Hub's database for book auction history.  I wanted clarity about importance, value and probability of reappearance.  The focus was auction history and never expecting that auctions would become so  significant.  My principal purpose simply was to build a bridge to future collecting.


Over the ensuing years I completed a collection about the New World and later another about the American westward expansion and were sent to auction in 2009 and 2010.


Over the past 15 years I’ve heavily relied on our databases and it has since let me build one more collection:  Ulster County:  An affair of the heart.


As the internet has evolved it transformed the field of collectible paper making it possible to collect at the granular level.  And it turned out that Ulster County, where I grew up, was a perfect test.  Early on I was told I could capture the subject of mid-Hudson history by purchasing 2 or 3 dozen collectible books.  Today my collection is measured in the tens of thousands items:




Disaster Images





Early print on cloth

Money, pins and doodads

The Records of Lake Mohonk

The Records of the Huguenot Bank

The Records of the Delaware & Hudson Canal

Stock Certificates

40 boxes of ephemera

40 Paintings and 160 Watercolors

Important Furniture



As my 80th birthday looms on the distant shore we’re seeing the field is continuing to rapidly transform. 


It’s been a privilege to have a ringside seat on what has become a revolution.  It’s been a deeply satisfying experience.