Collecting vintage and antique books

From Zoom meeting backgrounds to hotel interiors and ‘instant’ home libraries, vintage and antique books are having a moment, discovers Ellie Tennant, and the market for collecting has never been better

GAP Interiors/The CONTENTed Nest; James Bolston Photography

Spot a second-hand bookshop, ready to be explored, and your heart skips a beat? Do you enjoy inhaling the musty aroma of old books and spend hours rifling through dusty shelves, seeking out the prettiest covers and the most intriguing volumes?

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When the internet was in its infancy, some bibliophiles feared that the digital world would herald the end of the road for printed books. Indeed, sales of new books have steadily declined over the last few decades, but the turbulent events of the past year have given an unexpected boost to traditional books.

Meanwhile, sales of vintage books have never been stronger. The internet has allowed a new breed of savvy online dealers to emerge, supplying beautiful second-hand books to a global customer base. With lockdowns, shop closures and cancelled antiques events, more book addicts than ever are heading online to get their fix.

Ami Baker, founder of Country House Library (countryhouselibrary.co.uk), a firm that supplies vintage books to National Trust holiday cottages, and often works with high-end interior designers to furnish entire libraries for wealthy foreign property investors, says that sales have increased ‘five fold’ over the past year.

Diane Newland, manager of Books By The Yard at Bookbarn International (a company that has sourced old books for hotels, restaurants, the BBC and Young Vic Theatre) has noticed a similar trend. ‘We were seeing an increase in sales before the pandemic – from TV and set decorators, interior designers and private individuals – but last spring, when the first lockdown happened, we saw a sudden upsurge in smaller, more bespoke orders,’ she reveals. ‘People wanted to surround themselves with books, often to furnish their home offices for Zoom calls, but sometimes just because they suddenly had all this time at home and there was a fantastic resurgence of reading.’

When working from home became the new normal and people found themselves spending hours each week participating in online meetings, many became aware that their uninspiring domestic backdrops (think: laundry in the spare bedroom) weren’t projecting a particularly professional image to colleagues or clients. Tired of artificial automated backgrounds, a growing number of people decided to ‘decorate’ their home working spaces with vintage books.

vintage and antique books
When arranged in stacks, books can become informal pieces of furniture such as side tables or, as in this instance, quirky plinths for a collection of simple bowls
GAP Interiors/Rachel Whiting

At both Country House Library and Books By The Yard, books can be bought by the length – like fabric or bespoke wallpaper. You can even shop by colour to ensure that your books blend in beautifully with your decorating scheme. The strapline on the Books By The Yard website is: ‘books to peruse or adorn’ so it’s no secret that books are being bought as ornaments.

But is there something artificial and shallow about buying a ready-made library full of titles collected by somebody else – curated for you just because of the colour of their covers rather than the quality of their contents? For most people, books are gradually accumulated throughout a lifetime – received as gifts, picked up on travels, borrowed from friends, inherited from family members. If owning rows of books implies that you’ve read them, or at least intend to, are people who purchase ready-made libraries for their homes, or treat books as mere decorations (akin to houseplants or wall art) wanting to appear more ‘well-read’ than they actually are?

‘There are some literary people out there who may take a slightly snobbish view of buying books by the metre, but I’m more democratic,’ says Diane of Books By The Yard. ‘We can all buy books for whatever reason we like. Books are for everybody – not just for the well-read, or the literary.’ Indeed, interior stylists and set designers have long viewed books as decor, sometimes even turning volumes the wrong way round so that only the white pages are visible on a shelf for a minimalist look, or tying little bundles of books together with rustic twine, which renders them unreadable of course, yet somehow makes them look oddly appealing.

vintage and antique books
Bundles of antique books tied with twine are a favourite prop amongst stylists and a pretty addition to window sills and mantelpieces.
Jan Baldwin

Victoria Butters, interior designer at Babington House, often uses vintage books in her work. ‘They create a connection to the past, adding a sense of glamour and mystery,’ she says. ‘There’s something beautiful about a vintage book, not just the story it tells, but the beauty the cover holds and the history of its journey. They always add a certain comfort and stillness to a scheme that cannot be replicated by their contemporary counterparts.’

Books By The Yard stocks ‘stripped books’ (books that have lost their covers or are too damaged to sell) which are rented out as props to stylists and designers who appreciate their rough-luxe appeal. ‘Sometimes, it’s more about the look than the book,’ explains Diane. ‘They’re beautiful – creamy coloured, with a gorgeous texture.’

Ami from Country House Library says there are two types of books: those that are fantastic to read and others that are better to admire visually. ‘For me, books are the new cushions,’ she says. ‘You can buy coloured books from us and change the whole appearance of your room. You can get an instant feeling of ‘home’ with books. They immediately ground a house and make it feel lived in.’

There might be many reasons why people buy vintage books, but their enduring appeal is about much more than the contents of the chapters within or the colour of the cover. Book-lovers enthuse about the smell of the pages – finding
a long-forgotten leaf or flower pressed inside, deciphering scrawled pencil notes in the margins or finding a message from a lover on the inside cover.

‘Every vintage book is unique,’ enthuses Ami. ‘They might have a little mark or some underlining, so you feel a connection with previous readers. They also have really high production values – the paper quality, the illustrations, the front covers. They’re beautiful decorative items so I feel a responsibility towards them. I want to preserve them for future generations.’

Diane says she’s ‘fallen in love’ with old books, too. ‘I’m surrounded by them in our warehouse, which houses over a million books. They give off this lovely calm warmth and create a really homely atmosphere. They have decorative spines and beautiful coloured covers and they often have gilt titles or gilt along the edges of the pages. A lot of them have evocative inscriptions or dedications inside, so they provide a glimpse into a lost world.’

Roman scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero is reported to have said: ‘A room without books is like a body without a soul’. Fast-forward to 2021 and, in a world of hashtags, books are not just surviving, but are thriving. The internet seems to be fuelling the demand for vintage books and our desire to inject some ‘soul’ into our homes, not dampening it. ‘Because of the digital world, there’s a swing-back of the pendulum,’ agrees Diane. ‘For a lot of people, there has been a return to real objects that you can hold in your hand – it’s satisfying and comforting.’

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‘In the same way that young kids are drawn to vinyl and cassettes, books are having a comeback,’ adds Ami. ‘Our most passionate and growing client base are millennials – the ‘bookstagrammer’ hashtag on Instagram is fascinating. There’s a kind of counter culture reaction to the digital.’ It seems the story of books is far from over.