Some people go to Vegas to gamble, others to buy really rare books

Geraldine Fabrikant

What reward does one buy after winning at the gambling tables in Las Vegas or sitting through an excruciatingly dull convention there? A Rolex? A designer handbag? A new bracelet? How about a rare book?

It was 11 years ago that David and Natalie Bauman, owners of a successful rare book store in Manhattan, open since 1988, decided to expand to Las Vegas, with a store on a relatively quiet second floor walkway among the Grande Canal Shoppes between the Venetian and Palace hotels. On the main floor, ersatz gondolas with gondoliers ferry tourists from end to end.

Their shop is wedged next to Lazarou, a custom men’s clothing store, and just across from Mezlan, which sells shoes. Its two-story elegant bookcases are filled with carefully arranged volumes, many bound in embossed leather. A reading table at the centre of the store recalls an Ivy League library. A patient salesperson awaits visitors at a podium close to the entrance.

On a recent day, in a locked vitrine, were first editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in full leather pictorial bindings. Printed in 1866 and 1872, they sell together for $23,000 (£17,800). For $700 one could buy a first edition of Margaret Thatcher’s The Path to Power, signed by the former prime minister.

In a town of sparkle and flash, rare books are an anomaly, but for the Baumans they are lucrative. One visitor spent $400,000 on The Great Gatsby and McKenney and Halls’ History of the Indian Tribes of North America in a single visit. Another, a quiet man in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt, spent $15,000 on a first edition of Huckleberry Finn, and then several weeks later returned to pick out a first edition of The Catcher in the Rye for $17,000. (One can only imagine what Holden Caulfield would think of that.)

Go all in: the Vegas gallery in Bauman Rare Books

But most receipts are well under $1,000, Natalie Bauman says. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a bargain at $850, and a 1996 first edition of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club goes for about $1,000.

One Las Vegas visitor started with modest purchases. Then he became fascinated with John Gould’s Birds of Great Britain – an ornithological plate book that contains a series of spectacular plates, coloured by hand – and plunked down $100,000.

Later he paid $500,000 for a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia.

‘Most people don’t look up’

The couple got into rare books quite by accident, recalls David Bauman, a gentle, soft-spoken man in his 70s, after espying some at Freeman, the auction house, in Philadelphia where they lived as newlyweds. “For $1 we bought a first edition of a volume of Samuel Johnson’s works, then we bought a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses for $12, and we started to think about it as a business,” he says. “We were not afraid then because we did not know enough to be afraid.”

They opened a small store on the second floor of a building across the street from Freeman’s. “But what we did not realise is that most people don’t look up,” David Bauman says.

So they decided to go to antique shows around the country selling books. They eschewed New York because “we were told it was just terrifying”, Natalie says. “But when we finally came to the city, we made more money in one day as we made in six months going around the country.”

They next set up shop at the Waldorf Astoria because “you want to put yourself where the kind of people who buy your books will go”, Natalie says. Easy enough, right? Nope. “The first week, we did not sell any books. No one even came into the store,” she recalls.

But then Nelson Doubleday appeared. Doubleday had been chairman of Doubleday and Co, his family’s business, but had sold it for hundreds of millions. “He looked around and bought half of our inventory and had it shipped to his yacht. He was also the godson of Rudyard Kipling,” David says.

Eleven years later, the Baumans decided to open at 535 Madison Avenue, where they remain, after walking up and down the blocks there to evaluate the market. “Mostly businessmen,” David says.

One day, two women from the Midwest walked into the store. “We came to New York to see different, great things, and there is magic in your store,” one told Natalie.

We came to New York to see different, great things, and there is magic in your store

Bauman customer

Some years later her husband went to visit a cousin working on a project in Las Vegas. “I realised that there was over one million feet of convention space underneath the hotels,” he says. “Casinos have studied everything about their customers. They were making more money from the stores than from the casinos.”

He realised that the millions of visitors who arrive in Las Vegas each year “are there to enjoy themselves. They have the time to look at books and put a toe in the water. When you are on vacation, you have more discretionary income and more time to spend it.”

Buzz Aldrin’s Teletype

Still, for the Baumans, opening in Vegas was a big investment. They wanted a store that had the elegance of a wonderful library. “We believe we sell beautiful things so they should be housed in a beautiful place,” David says. The store also required a staff of nine people, since it is generally open 13 hours a day.

Its sales staff has to be very knowledgeable. “He would quiz us,” Eric Pederson, who now manages the Manhattan store, says. “David would point to a book and ask us to tell us everything we knew about it.” Today a 32-person workforce is employed in New York, Las Vegas and Philadelphia, where much of the research and online business takes place.

Over time experts learn what makes a book valuable. For example, Pederson explains, the earliest copies of the first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises said “author of In Our Times” on the dust jacket. “You had to know it was an error that was soon “corrected to In Our Time. The mistake told you that book was an earlier copy.”

Take a punt: an early edition of The Catcher in the Rye fetched $17,000

Initial printings of Huckleberry Finn had errors as well. On page 57 a sentence read: “With his was ...” because the letters for the word “saw” had been reversed. In later printings it was corrected to: “With his saw.”

And a copy of Ulysses, signed by both James Joyce and Henri Matisse, was printed before their dispute because Joyce grew upset when he realised Matisse had relied on Homer’s Odyssey as a source of inspiration, rather than Joyce’s Ulysses.

But erudition is not enough to keep the Baumans afloat. Marketing and event planning are equally important. In July 2009, the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, the store promoted a group of space exploration items including Buzz Aldrin’s Teletype message of the safe touchdown, which he later signed, and six volumes of limited editions by astronauts including John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. For a nice stocking stuffer one year, the Baumans offered a first edition of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. The price: $38,000.

For gamblers who pray to win, and may need a little help, the store had offered an exhibit of rare bibles including a fragment of the microform containing 50 pages of the King James Bible. Three years ago the shop held an exhibit of cookbooks, including the first Jewish one published in America.

The Baumans, who spend most of their time in New York and a 12,000sq ft headquarters in Philadelphia, remain obsessed by books. “When we are going on vacation, we have to pick a place with no bookshops,” David says. “We like Thailand, Vietnam and Turkey. Turkey because you could not buy and take away old Qurans because they are antiquities. So all we could buy was fabric.”

Their success in Las Vegas has been “a pleasant surprise”, he says, with a few unexpected advantages.

For example, the city attracts more than 42 million visitors a year, but the average stay is only three-and-a-half days. “You don’t have to change your windows very often,” David says.

© New York Times