Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Collecting Books: A Beautiful Obsession

The first time I visited Hay-on-Wye in Wales, a tiny and somewhat eccentric but truly marvellous place dedicated solely to bookstores, I thought I had fallen into some kind of literary Land of Oz. 

The entire town was a tribute to the written word. 

There were books piled up on trestle tables in the street, stores imploding with colourful vintage titles, and cafes where books came with the coffee.

Even the village green had an enormous elongated bookshelf full of browse-as-you-please reads.

 There were poetry bookshops, crime and mystery bookshops, botany and gardening bookshops, and one devoted to rare illustrated books. 

It was a bibliophiles' best dream. 

Then I discovered Clunes, in Victoria, another literary destination that's home of the hugely popular Booktown Festival in May every year. 

A Mecca for collectors, it features thousands of rare, vintage, second-hand, small press publications and of course new books on sale. Many are collectables. I always pick up great vintage fashion titles there. {}

Since then, I've discovered that book collecting, particularly vintage book collecting, is a fast-growing (albeit under-the-radar) obsession. Go to The Strand bookstore in New York on any given day and you'll see book lovers loading up baskets with beautiful old titles. 

The wonderful Matchbook Magazine (which loves books) did an engrossing interview with book collector Alyssa Potter, owner of online bookstore Coterie Books on page 38 of this issue –  here

In it, Alyssa talks about tracking down rare, out-of-print fashion books, and kicking herself for not buying ones, such as Grace Coddington's book Grace, which are now worth a small fortune. 

It's a fascinating interview. (Above images) {} 

Not surprisingly, I've fallen in love with the idea of collecting books. Particularly vintage titles. Particularly vintage fashion titles. And also classic novels. 

And even gardening titles too, if I can find them. This new interest came after seeing Bunny Williams' enormous library devoted to vintage gardening books (above), which was so extensive it had to be housed in her guest cottage at her Connecticut weekender.

The book-collecting trend has become so big in certain circles that some people are now covering their books with images of other (rarer) books. A year or so ago Kate Spade released 'book-cover wrapping paper', which buyers could download to cover ugly books that weren't pretty but were still treasured enough to keep. I thought it was a brilliant idea. {I can't find the link, so if someone has it, perhaps you could let me know?}

By the way, did you see Katia Kueth has just joined Kate Spade as the new Director of Creative? Loved the interview the New York Times did with her recently –

"I imagine the Kate Spade New York customer as someone who’s into arts and culture; she loves the joie de vivre. She always has some kind of cultural interests. For instance, if you look at our book clutches I think this is a very specific peg to our brand, a product that announces the sophistication of our consumer but is still fun. Our girl loves elements of vintage and the feeling of celebration. There’s always a wink. She never takes things too seriously..."

Here are some images of vintage beauties that I've found around the literary traps. 

I hope it inspires you all to start collecting these old classics, too.

A charming vintage-book photo shoot. Photos by Jennifer Alcala for Matchbook Magazine.

Some of our favourite old covers framed in our library. (These are actually postcards – a lovely idea from Penguin's gift store.)

London architect and interior designer Ben Pentreath loves books, and often talks about them in his always-delightful blog He not only collects them for himself but he also sells them in his store. Some of his favourites are those in the King Penguin series. Seventy-six King Penguins were published between November 1939 and 1959. They range in subject from Life in An English Village to Animals In Staffordshire Pottery (!). See them here. I love Tulipomania, above. Have you ever seen a book with such a charming cover?

Always loved this shoot of Gwyneth and the piles of vintage books. Can't imagine how they got them all to stack up without falling on her, though.

The designer Olympia Le-Tan collects old vintage books to use as inspiration for her amazing book clutches. Her charming website (subtitled 'Handbags & Minaudieres') is worth looking at just for the eye candy. {}

Via the blog Hi and Low. {}

Via Tumblr.

Mimi Wedell's home by Tim Walker.

And my favourite...

“What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”

― Jerry Seinfeld

{NB Don't have a source for the beautiful image at the very top, but will endeavour to find out and credit shortly.}


  1. You are never alone with a house full of books, old or new.Thrilled to hear about the ClunesFestival,it's such a pretty town anyway.

  2. I love my books, and can't imagine living in a house without them. My sister is on a mission to try to convert my family to get rid of the hard copy books and put them on a kindle instead. She is apparently doing this with her collection at the moment. Can't say we all agree with her though. She does get posted overseas, so it's probably a more practical thing for her, but I do love looking and flicking through them, and you really can't do a coffee table book on a kindle. Some of those covers are really beautiful on the vintage books. I also love the new embroidered designs that were done recently by Jillian Tamaki - just beautiful

  3. Hi

    Found you via FF, I have been to Hay on Wye also!

    Lovely blog Elle x

  4. I have a library. Well stocked. Alas, shelves need painting and electrical for sconces.

    Now, you teach me about more resources.

    I like my shelves ALL BOOKS no bric/brac.

    Have recently been buying some great vintage mags from the early/mid 80's. Loved them then and now getting so much more from them with decades of experience in my quiver.

    XO T

  5. I love all my books! I started buying Ebooks recently and find them not nearly as satisfying. I have to force myself to read them. I plan to go back to paper. Lovely post.

  6. Great seeing all those book covers, many of them I recognise ..

    I have heard of Hay on Wye but maybe a trip back to Victoria to Clunes should be on the cards..There's also a Clunes in northern NSW Im quite capable of heading in the wrong direction ..believe me ...

    Glad you came back from Hanging Rock one piece saw you mention it on another blog.

    How is THE BOOK ? ready to face the world soon ? hope so

  7. I have just found my grandmother's copy of French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David, decorated by John Minton, (isnt "decorated" fantastic) This is the revised second edition published in 1959. It is a penguin handbook.

    Ms David talks about buying Maldon sea salt in health food stores.. I didn't know they existed then.

    1. Dear Janelle and smr
      Have found some wonderful editions of Elizabeth David's books at fetes in the last few years. They often go quite cheaply. But it's more special to have a family copy like your grandmother's. Love to read them but for cooking French food I still stick to the bible, Mastering the Art of.. by Julia Child etc. My original bought in 1969 has burst its bindings and is held together by a large rubber band. The fave recipes have wine and gravy stains. But I wouldn't part with it. Bought a more recent copy years ago in fear I might lose some of the pages. Then D-I-L saw that and admired it so I gave it to her. After the Julie and Julia film came out I actioned (as Mis FF would say) a number of dinner parties, with food made from the book, including her boeuf bourguignon recipe. Great fun. Still have some maldon sea salt too. Best wishes, pamela

  8. Love, love, love books, they give a room a soul.


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