For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself teetering dangerously on the edge of a new and almost certainly expensive obsession with rare books. Blame Instagram.
As social-media platforms go, Instagram is the flashiest, the least reliant on text, and by far the most brazenly commercial, where it’s an open secret that every account past a certain audience threshold has long since been infiltrated by product placements and corporate-engineered hashtags. None of which is an obvious match for the literary world. But that all changed for me when I came across a group of rare-book dealers who use the platform not just to show off their wares, but also to sell them directly to their followers. In the process, these young turks are bringing one of the most inaccessible corners of the book world into the digital public square—and tempting me with $100 siren calls every time I open the damn app.
“The networking I’ve achieved through Instagram has been incredible. Way more than half of my sales are through there now,” says Jordan Brodeur, a mail carrier by day and book dealer by night (where he goes by the handle @sunlitcaverarebooks). Brodeur signed up for Instagram in late 2016, after selling for several years through eBay. He was also the first such dealer I fell for—his photos well composed, his titles well curated, and each post complemented by a dash of personality in the caption. So when I found out that we both live in the same northern Canadian city, I hopped in the car immediately to go see his collection in person.
Brodeur first got the collector’s bug when he spotted an unannounced first edition of Hemingway’s Men Without Women at a bookstore in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He loved the thrill of finding something valuable hidden in plain sight, and from then on kept chasing the dragon, teaching himself the ins and outs of the trade (and its attendant lingo) as he went. He turned to selling once he realized he couldn’t afford to hold onto every rare book he came across. And that meant going online.
Like a lot of analog industries, most rare-book dealers didn’t take to the Internet immediately. Ebay was the first place where rare books could really flourish online, but traditional dealers still held off, more comfortable selling through the mail, via catalogues, or in person at specialized fairs and brick-and-mortar shops. That landscape is shifting, though—especially in the retail world. “Rare-book stores are kind of rare these days,” says Kevin Sell, a bookseller and grad student in St. Paul, Minn., who goes by @rarebooksleuth on Instagram. “No one really goes into a rare-book store and browses for $500 books. Typically, the person who’s buying a rare book knows what they want. So they will look online, and find the best copy in the best condition at the best price.”
Instagram turns out to be particularly attractive to dealers like Sell and Brodeur. For one thing, it’s a free space to show off their wares (Amazon and eBay, by contrast, both take significant commissions on each item sold through their sites). There are also none of the barriers to entry that used to be standard for aspiring dealers—as Brodeur puts it, “apprenticing with some old codger who had you sweeping the floors eight hours a day.” And the built-in community element offers a continuous point of contact that other sites can’t match: once a user has found and followed an Instagram seller they like, they will automatically see every new post that dealer makes (well, in theory, anyway, non-chronological timelines be damned). And those followers might not even be collectors. Like me, they might just enjoy looking at pictures of pretty books.
Brodeur is not unaware of the possibility that his feed might be a gateway drug. “I have a lot of followers who don’t collect rare books, but see these posts and wish they did,” he says. “My mercenary intentions are not to get likes from people. They’re to get engagement from people who will actually buy books.” At the same time, he’s a hardcore reader at heart who loves to talk about his favourite authors. Instagram, then, is a way for him to scratch both itches: to talk about how much he loves William T. Vollmann (a particular favorite among the literary Instagram crowd), and to flip a signed first edition of The Rainbow Stories at the same time.
Age is a factor here, too. Sell and Brodeur are both 31, literal decades younger than your average rare-book dealer. They are naturally more comfortable with social media than someone who still prefers the charming inefficiencies of mail-order catalogues. Youth can be a double-edged sword, though; many of Brodeur’s followers are also young enough that they can’t afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a single book. “The exceptions,” he adds, “are always notable.”
Even though the Instagram community is still in its early stages, dealers are starting to jump in with both feet. Like Brodeur, Sell lists his books other places—eBay, Amazon, AbeBooks, Facebook, and at his own website. But Instagram is in a class of its own. “People are so much more friendly there,” Sell says. If, for instance, he were to list a copy of Atlas Shrugged on Facebook, he can already imagine the 100-comment firefight it would degenerate into. Whereas on Instagram, “it’s people who can appreciate the book for what it is: a monumental intellectual work that has a lasting influence today—with a really cool dust jacket.”
“Unbelievably friendly,” Brodeur agrees about the Instagram crowd. “Just so nice. I’ll post a book that’s a big deal for me, and everyone’s just so excited about it.”
As a hobbyist, Brodeur lists about 150 titles in total and sells on average a couple of books per week. For Sell, a comparatively seasoned dealer who’s been on Instagram since 2015 (and who later convinced Brodeur to join the site), those numbers jump to 300 and 10 to 20, respectively. Both, however, are chalking up more and more of their sales to Instagram. And both say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many new friends, fellow aficionados, and potential future customers they’ve met along the way.
Of all the ways Instagram might change the rare-book game, none is more important, as far as I’m concerned, than the way that Sell, Brodeur, and their peers have demystified what can seem from the outside like a dusty, impenetrable trade.
“My goal in life is to do something that’s considered pretentious, but not do it in a snotty way,” Brodeur says. “Just be a good guy. C’mon. You don’t have to be a snob.”
OK, I’m convinced. Now, about that first edition of The Rainbow Stories… is it still available?